clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Elena Ferrante’s portrayal of Naples feeds our desire for authentic travel.
Sarah Lawrence/Vox

Filed under:

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend doesn’t just compel people to read, but to travel

Ferrante’s portrayal of Naples isn’t glamorous, but that’s exactly why people are going.

Erica Goldsmith and Kate Dunlop were friends the way lots of moms are friends with parents in their child’s class: peripherally. That is, until they realized they were both reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of books called the Neapolitan novels.

The books, Erica says, gave the Seattle friends a shorthand for each other and a launch pad for a deeper connection that wouldn’t have existed had they not both been reading the same book. “When you talk about the books with other women in particular, you find out which parts resonated with that person. You’re like, ‘Oh tell me more, why did that appeal to you and that appeal to me?’ And you learn something in that,” she says.

Now, every time Erica writes Kate a note — on a gift or in a card — she addresses it to “my brilliant friend, Kate.”

Eric and Kate are just two of the millions of readers who have caught “Ferrante fever.” Written by an alluringly anonymous author who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, the series has collectively sold more than 10 million copies in 40 countries. Last year, the novels were adapted into a play, and this Sunday an HBO series based on the books is premiering.

While many books experience sweeping popularity, Ferrante’s novels are part of a subgroup of pop culture that compels people to travel. Tour groups like Looking for Lila and Ferrante Fever Naples have popped up across Naples, where the series is set, and travelers report being amazed and delighted by their experiences. Unlike Rome, Florence, or Venice, Naples’s crime-ridden reputation has kept it from being in the rotation of cities that tourist frequent. But the Ferrante books are changing that.

In 2015, Erica and Kate took a Ferrante-inspired tour of Naples, where they not only saw specific sites mentioned in the books, but were entrenched in the history and culture of the city. Neither traveler had ever taken a guided tour before, and they worried that this was too “book nerdy,” but decided to go for it.

Even in this subgroup, the novels stand out. Unlike a Lord of the Rings–inspired trip to New Zealand, where travelers are eager to see a land of fictitious hobbits and orcs, or even Eat, Pray, Love, where readers were romanced by Liz Gilbert’s journey of renewal, Ferrante’s novels, though fictional, are not glamorous. They portray a class-divided Italy through the lifelong relationship of two women who have a searingly realistic friendship of love, gratitude, competition, and betrayal.

The book’s portrayal of friendship and Naples can be described in one word: authentic. And authenticity is something travelers are seeking out more and more. In a time when people want to travel but not be tourists, the Neapolitan novels offer a window into a gritty yet beautiful town that aligns with the most recent travel trends.


In 2016, Ann Mah wrote for the New York Times about her Ferrante-inspired journey to Naples, saying that using the books as a window helped her to “view Naples like a native.”

“I had come to Naples without a guidebook or even a map,” she wrote, “in search of a disheveled neighborhood of ‘flaking walls’ and ‘scratched doors,’ where the ‘wretched grey’ of the buildings clashed with the passion and repression of the characters of the writer Elena Ferrante.”

Those characters, namely Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, friends from childhood who grow from intelligent young girls to resourceful older women over the course of the four novels, are a touchstone for readers. They feel real, and the very real place where they live their lives takes on a special quality.

To Mah, visiting Naples was more like meeting a person rather than seeing a setting, so familiar were the books. “Naples was was like an abusive boyfriend that the girls kept coming back to,” Mah tells me.

Although Mah guided herself through the city, many readers are purchasing prepackaged guided tours that showcase Naples through the Ferrante lens.

When I talk to tour guides and tour-goers, like Erica, they say traveling to Naples feels like a natural extension of reading the novels because of how large the region loomed. “Naples plays such a giant character, much like New York plays such a role in Sex in the City,” Erica says. “To see the place you’ve seen in your mind in reality, it changes things.”

Erica says that it was the books’ nuance that made them resonate with her so deeply. “It really struck me, as a mother, what they go through when they first have their children and that sense of not knowing who you are and what your place in the world is,” she says. “They also capture the friendship of women in a way you don’t see frequently. As one person gets successful, you are so excited and grateful for your friend, but you also have that sense of ‘why not me?’ And I think those are things not written about and not talked about.”

Erica and Kate took their Ferrante-inspired trip with Danielle Oteri, author of Ferrante Fever: A Naples Travel Guide Inspired by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and an expert in art history.

Oteri’s Ferrante Fever Naples Tours cost $1,500 (not including airfare, accommodations, or most meals). Recognizing the tours may be cost-prohibitive, she wrote her book so others could explore the city independently.

Oteri’s desire to guide people through Naples was partially due to her love of the novels, but also due to her adoration of the city, which sometimes has a less-than-spotless reputation, thanks to a long history with organized crime. As an art historian with family roots in Naples, she often writes about the city for publications and has been asked to discuss the dangerous side of the city. “I’ve pitched stories about Naples where editors have asked me, ‘Can you talk about the mafia?’”

But with Ferrante Fever putting Naples in the spotlight, she saw an opportunity to educate travelers on the city she already loved. “The books have become an excuse,” she says. “Now you’re interested in Naples, now let me show you this really extraordinary place that isn’t like anything else.”

On her tours, she extrapolates themes from the novels and puzzles them into their place in Neapolitan history and geography. My Brilliant Friend opens with the two main characters dropping their dolls into a cellar where they vanish below the city, and Oteri shows how the the underground plays a role in Naples history by guiding travelers through the layers of city beneath the present day congestion: Roman roads and markets, World War II bomb shelters, and fading mosaics.

“I say, ‘Here’s this metaphor from this book, this is why it resonates and makes sense in Naples, this is why it’s in the book and [why] the book couldn’t take place in any other city,’” Oteri says.

Because the book deals with universal themes like class division, friendship, and motherhood, the tours appeal to a wide demographic of readers. Danielle’s tour-goers are mainly women, but there are some men as well. They come from all over the world, including Sweden, America, and India (but not Italy).


These tours marry two trends, one being book- and film-based travel. When Crazy Rich Asians premiered in August, searches for flights to Singapore spiked on Kayak and Orbitz. New Zealand capitalized on Lord of the Rings mania by making hobbit-themed planes on Air New Zealand and a Lord of the Rings–inspired airplane safety video. Eat, Pray, Love drove travelers not only to the infamous Napoli pizza place, but to Bali, where the number of tourists swelled.

The larger trend these tours embody is an increased desire for authenticity. To combat appearing like ridiculous tourists, travelers have ditched the modern, downtown hotel room for the teeny apartment rental in a seedy neighborhood. They comb through hundreds of bar and restaurant reviews, not to find where the best stuff is, but where the locals go.

Professor Stephanie Malia Hom is a scholar of Italian tourism and says that the stereotypes about Italy — that it is full of art, slow food, family, and evening strolls — has long facilitated an interest in the region. It’s the perfect synthesis of romance, history, and carefree living, which work together to orchestrate what people believe their lives should be like. “It’s tourism jazz,” Hom says.

For years, according to Hom, film tourism has been rampant in Italy, with people visiting Julia Roberts’s apartment from Eat, Pray, Love and seeing where the house in Under the Tuscan Sun was built. But today, travelers want something less idealized.

“The Ferrante tours are a current manifestation of that attraction to this idea of ‘Destination Italy’,” Hom says. “There’s a long literary tradition and film tradition of Italy being this land, this beautiful land, that is this more authentic place that has the power to change its visitors.”

The books compel visitors to visit Naples because they align the region with those Italian stereotypes that are so attractive, but also with a more somber reality. “As scholars of tourism, it’s a well-held theory that the search for authenticity is the driver of modern tourism,” Hom says. “In our day and age, we become disillusioned with the modern world.”

Hom adds that Naples is also a desirable place to begin with. “It’s an earthy, seductive place,” she says. “Sophia Loren represents it. There is a long tradition of music and folklore.” And even the seedy reputation Naples suffers of being mafia-run and crime-ridden, Hom says, just adds a layer of danger and off-the-beaten-path excitement to the whole experience.

And, of course, visiting Naples serves as an extension of the books. Rabid readers want to see something they’ve already digested, brought to life. “Tourists go places to confirm their own expectations rather than to discover something new,” Hom says. “Part of tourists going on these tours is to confirm what they’ve read in the books and get a sense of place that they already have in their own imaginations.”


Sophia Seymour offers Ferrante-inspired tours called Looking for Lila. On her site, you find two options: one more general Neapolitan tour for 250 euros ($280), and one of the neighborhoods featured in Ferrante’s novels for 270 euros ($300). Sophia says her tours are popular with women in their mid-thirties, book groups, and the odd, straggling husband.

Sophia’s interest in Naples started in 2012, during her time studying abroad for her third year at University College London. Her friends warned against it, telling her she would be robbed. “I pushed forward, because when people say that stuff, it usually means that’s someplace interesting,” she says.

Sophia became obsessed with the city, and her friend recommended the Neapolitan novels when she returned to London. Being a woman who lived in Naples, Sophia says, the books struck a chord with her because she could imagine where everything was taking place. A couple years after graduation, she moved back to Naples and started to explore the city and meet locals, all the time mentally building out a map of where the Neapolitan novels took place.

She explored large housing projects, talked to the local pastry shop owner and shoemaker. No one in the neighborhood, she says, had heard of Ferrante’s novels. Soon, she started giving out copies one by one, and decided that she wanted to show people this side of Naples.

“No one was doing tours in the neighborhood because it has this reputation that the political mafia had its hold on it,” she says. “But when you go during the day, it’s kind of this sleepy, quiet neighborhood with a bakery and bar. To me, having made friends with people, I wanted to raise up this community that Ferrante had so vividly described.”

Sophia believes that sense of community is exactly what people taking her tours want to experience. It’s a value and a way of life prevalent in the novel, but rare in a society today. In the world of sprawling suburbs and gentrification, many of us don’t know our neighbors, and they don’t care to know us. To Sophia, that is the focus of Ferrante’s novels. “She raises up the things that Naples has a bad reputation of being dangerous, dirty, crime-infested, and poor, things that put people off for so many years,” she says. “And Elena raises up those exact things and puts it on the map.”

Today, the neighborhood is crowdfunding a mural of Elena and Lila, the two girls from Ferrante’s novels.

Talking to Erica, the images she was enthralled by on her tour with Oteri were things that wouldn’t demand attention otherwise. “We all jumped out of the van and were taking pictures of this overpass, which looms so large in the book as a physical manifestation of a barrier between neighborhoods,” she says. “When you see it, you’re like, ‘Oh, my god!’”

But to Erica, the tour not only deepened her understanding of the books; it also gave her a deeper understanding of herself as an Italian American. “It was so cool to see the Neapolitans living their lives and then identify things in my own world,” she says.

And, of course, it made her and Kate’s relationship even stronger. The two are planning a trip to Naples this April with their daughters.

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.

Money

Older Americans are working longer. Some want to; others have to.

Future Perfect

I got to see the IRS’s free tax-filing software in action. Here’s what I learned.

Donald Trump

Trump is suddenly in need of a lot of cash. That’s everyone’s problem.

View all stories in Money

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.