Well, here it goes.
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. The series is comprised of four books, all of which are quickly becoming modern classics — with slinging comparisons made to highly renowned authors I’ve never actually read, leaving everyone guessing who she is herself. But she clearly doesn’t want her identity to be a point of conversation, just the novels she has given us. They are a gift which we can underline every other paragraph of and cling to, even if we’re reluctant, because really, she’s just gracefully ripping into our thoughts through hers, making us confront our own vulnerable truths.
The book series has been on fire for a while now, with the final book in the tetralogy recently being released, but after hearing Chip Kidd practically scoff at the book covers on the Longform Podcast, and seeing Steven Heller mention the covers not being vulgar enough in a recent Quartz article—I had to read it for the entertainment of the controversy. You didn’t think I would want to skip out on the hype of Ferrante, did you? Not with these covers. Sure, I’m behind on the book series as a whole, only now just finishing book one and already halfway through book two, but people are still adding it to their lists for this year, so I don’t feel ~completely~ behind making My Brilliant Friend my first book post of the year. Not that such a thing matters, for that would give the impression that the mysterious Ferrante and her works constitute that of a trend, the dedicated #Ferrantefever being a direct indication of such, but it seems as though they’re very much here to stay.
Summary: Written as a series of four novels, Ferrante tells us the story of Elena and Lina’s powerful relationship developed from childhood through adolescence and beyond, written through the perspective of a matured Elena herself. Raised in an impoverished neighborhood outside of Naples, both Elena and Lila form a powerful, but corrosive friendship, based on trust, survival and competition. My Brilliant Friend is the story of their struggles to keep up with each other and surpass tradition, without falling into the traps of the previous generation, that of their parents.
It is nearly impossible to hear someone discuss Ferrante without attaching their own opinion, or collective opinion, of the covers — which have become almost infamous. And I’m no different. When such discussions exists, I’m left wanting to know more, optimistically searching for possible reasons or intentions behind such decisions. But we all have our own opinions, and want to say something, even when it’s against our own aesthetic or outside of accepted trends — when contextually, it may not be bad at all. Hmm…this is all starting to sound like I’m defending comic sans again. No shame. Context, people.
Steven Heller: design critic, shining star, seemingly cool man, told Quartz the covers weren’t vulgar and ironic enough, they’re generic. I like to think this is true, and maybe it somewhat is, but irony doesn’t seem to be the intention of the designer. If it was, the typography would need to be altered significantly in order to truly give a shout out to our girl D. Steel (insert De Stijl joke here). Instead, we’re stuck with a stock photo and generic type stacked on top of each other, where if you just add a comma, Elena Ferrante would be My Brilliant Friend. The cover is a Getty image which had been manipulated and modified by Anthony Boccaccio, you can tell by the grass, which has highly pronounced shadows around the feet, along with random blurred areas — eliminating whatever texture it originally had. Then there are the figures themselves. On a basic and informational level, we’re presented with three main relationships: that of the bride and groom, the three girls themselves, and the family this picture paints with the combination of the previous — all wrapped heavily in a familiar tradition. This tradition, which is most likely set during the 80’s, could even leave an open discussion about class structures just based on attire alone. These simple associations with a photograph or illustration are what help a design function on multiple levels within the system of language created by the author. In a brief 2010 interview in the Huffington Post, the cover designer, Emanuele Ragnisco, states:
“I approach each cover design as if it were a ‘small manifesto,’ one whose goal is to communicate to the potential reader that this book contains something that concerns him directly. The second goal is to distinguish the cover in question from every other cover. We address the first question by individuating the most appropriate language. By ‘language’ I mean the language of signs.”
How threatening, those words, ‘concerns her directly’ in this discussion of Ferrante, though the cover isn’t nearly as biting. But the aforementioned language of signs Ragnisco points to add to the readers desire to connect images with words. Thus, we are left wanting to know who is supposed to be who, while wondering how Ferrante’s words start to connect and help form her own symbolism. But eventually, we’ll realize the connection shifts when Elena and Lina become culturally old enough to Marry, and the role we’re ultimately supposed to cast for the randos on the cover will be revealed (if you do decide to play that game). This association shift makes the cover seem unexpectedly dynamic, and it no longer seems like the worst cover in the world — just a bit upsetting when you pause to close the book and they’re still there, ruining our own visions we’ve created while reading.
With these covers creating such controversy, it’s nice to see the publishers and art directors are still firmly standing by them, for they’re the ones who are in control and are in between us and the author. But after reading an amazing interview with Ferrante herself in The Paris Review, the style of them isn’t very surprising at all the more we find out about her, for the she states the only interesting thing about publishing is strictly the act of being read alone, with the goal of disappointing usual expectations and inspiring new ones.
I publish to be read. It’s the only thing that interests me about publication. So I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader’s attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose.[…] My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
Though it is an inspiring and highly respectable statement alone, this can speak to the covers as well, for they almost seem like the bare minimum in terms of cover design—nearly being the cheapest thing you could do to just get it out and get it read, (from a legit publisher anyway, self publishing obviously would be different) until you hold it and realize it’s actually quite lovely. And though she probably doesn’t care, the covers do break traditional genre boundaries set within notable book cover design trends within 2015 as well, which, to state the obvious, are highly illustrative and typographically playful—ultimately becoming one of the most talked about books on the internet.
Unfortunately, My Brilliant Friend doesn’t have a colophon, but I’ve already concluded the type used throughout the book is Simoncini’s Garamond (Linotype), set at about 10/12 (point size/leading). There are many different types of Garamond out there, many of which are frequently used within books for their ease in readability, but specific characteristics make it easier to spot. This version has a higher contrast between thick and thin, rather than being a similar weight throughout, making it more delicate than the others. The slant in the lowercase ‘a’ is an example of this, while also being somewhat of a nod to the original shape of Garamond and its calligraphic characteristics. This version also has somewhat energetic serifs that dip, as seen in the lowercase ‘i’, leaving very subtle dips on the stem of the ‘M’ that make it part of the family. These characteristics are minimal, but make a difference when reading them normally, or looking at them closely. With the same set of glasses on, we can notice the same face is used throughout the book.
Since the Neapolitan novels span decades of friendship between Elena and Lina, I was a bit curious to see how the story would be divided, whether it would be consistent with each decade, divided by full title pages, or if it would be more subtle with just traditional chapters. But the designer gave us a mini table of contents, (Prologue, Childhood, Adolescence) as well as an index of characters (since there are so many of them). Split within each section are minimal chapter numbers, not leaving any extra space just to start on the next one, an easy pattern to guide us through the years.
Moving beyond just the aesthetics of the cover, and typographic decisions made (where the author/title relationship clearly could have been improved), are more elements within the production that can vary within every book. One of the obvious call outs would be the added flaps to the perfectly bound (pages are cut and glued at the spine with a flexible glue) cover, combining elements found on the jackets of hard covers, into the soft cover version, and it’s beautiful. The flaps are around 3.5 inches and extend from the trim size by 0.125 inches—like a standard bleed.
[Note: type sizes below are close estimates made using a typographic ruler, it won’t be 100% accurate since every face is different.]
Author: Elena Ferrante
Publisher: Europa Editions
Book Design: Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover Photo: Anthony Boccaccio/Getty Images
Text/display typeface: Simoncini’s Garamond
Main text size: 10/12pt Simoncini’s Garamond, left justified
Section titles: 12pt caps, 12pt italics
Drop caps: First paragraph of new section, 48pt
Running heads: 7pt Simoncini’s Garamond, capitals + 12 units, centered. Verso: folios (page number) and author. Recto: book title and folios.
Lines per page: 34 (excluding running heads)
Average characters per line: 60
Pages: Trimmed size: Std. 5.5 x 8.5 inches (end up slightly smaller)
Margins: Gutter (inner margin): 9/16", Outside: 1/2", Top: 3/4", Bottom: 1"
Order: Opening: Previous works (verso), half title (recto), title page (recto), copyright (verso), poem (recto), contents (recto), second half title (recto), index of characters (recto), section opener (recto). Closing: about the author (recto), other novels in series (recto).
With all of this, I set out to redesign a new cover for My Brilliant Friend, with the hopes of getting better at doing so. This one in particular seemed incredibly daunting, due to the amount of criticism the covers have received, with also needing to keep consistency and potential development from first book to the last of the tetralogy in mind. But, I tried to clear out the covers that have been burned into my memory so I could make a version of my own. Which is added below.
For my version of the cover, I went in the opposite direction of the existing ones and removed the photo(s) that distracts us from our own imagination. I gathered colors from the book that help bolster the tone, and created an abstract background that can be recognized as the sky, but mostly the sea, using a mixture of water and blue ink — something that can be washed away, destroying what once was, with attempts of disappearing completely. The layout needed to be minimal, yet vulnerable, reminiscent of a journal one confines to — for we are in the mind of the Elena(s), as well as our own, which can be a dark, foggy, and vicious place.
The Paris Review. Elena Farrante, Art of Fiction No. 228.
Peter Gabor, Garamond V Garamond Physiology of a Typeface.