Pamela Erans in VQR:
The enormous attention to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—first the books published in the US between 2012 and 2015 and then the HBO series that has so far covered the first two titles, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—has obscured the fact that in Ferrante’s novelistic output as a whole, female friendship has not been a primary theme. The three intense and at times phantasmagorical novels she published before the Neapolitan quartet dealt with friendship almost not at all. Troubling Love (1992) is about the relationship between a middle-aged woman and her recently deceased mother; in The Days of Abandonment (2002) a mother of two young children is abruptly left by her husband; and while The Lost Daughter (2006) concerns two women who meet on a beach vacation, it has more to do with the narrator’s odd, impulsive theft of a doll beloved by the other woman’s daughter. Messy familial bonds have been the focus of Ferrante’s work: bonds between grown daughters and their mothers, mothers and their young children, and women and their husbands. She is interested in intimacy and betrayal, merging and separation, the peril of togetherness on the one hand and solitude on the other. Either losing oneself in another or remaining too distant can threaten the stability of her first-person, female narrators. Above all, in Ferrante’s novels, close relationships, whether hostile or loving, never truly end.
All three of Ferrante’s pre-quartet novels involve a small number of significant characters and take place in highly compressed periods of time.