Over the holiday break I finally cracked and decided to read Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s much-praised My Brilliant Friend. One of my biggest reading flaws is a well-founded but poorly applied aversion to hype, and I had been both concerned and confused by all the attention Ferrante’s Neapolitan series had been receiving. Her translated quartet of realistic novels about two women growing up in Naples doesn’t quite fit the within the landscape of male-authored confessionals and postmodern masterpieces I associate with literary success in translation, but her popularity within certain high-brow literary circles, the overuse of the term “bildungsroman” in reviews for the series, and the book’s godawful cover still had me nervous about what to expect. Luckily, my wooly fears proved unfounded and I was rewarded with this fascinating book. Read on for details.
So, what exactly is this book about?
The complicated relationship between two smart girls growing up on the mean streets of 1950s Naples.
Is it worth the hype?
Actually, yes. This is exactly the type of book that should be hyped, and it surprises and delights me that it is getting the attention it deserves. It has none of the flash or novelty that lures critics to under-the-radar literature and often disappoints; it’s simply a good story, told with real insight and heart.
Strong sense of place
I love a book where the setting comes alive and My Brilliant Friend delivers with its depiction of life within the story’s poor Neapolitan neighborhood of the 1950s. The peers of main characters Elena and Lila make a lively supporting cast and bring to life the political and economic activity of the neighborhood. It’s a pleasure to watch them grow from schoolyard bullies into a tight-knit group of friends who become at a surprisingly early age the lifeblood of their community. They try in different ways to succeed within the confines of their class and to understand the political legacy left them by the previous generation, bringing to light the history that haunts the city itself.
The heart of this novel is the complicated and extremely satisfying relationship between the timid narrator, Elena, and her bold friend Lila. The two meet as elementary school children and become unlikely friends, developing a bond that is as rivalrous as it is loving. In their early years, they are united in their desire to learn and to resist the lives determined for them by their class. Though one quickly outpaces the other, they continue to challenge each other to be smarter, stronger, less afraid, until their paths diverge in cruel fashion and each is forced to make her separate way. This is a challenge for Elena in particular, who without Lila as a reference point struggles to find motivation and believe in her own merits. Her unsteady sense of self and attempts to compete with Lila on separate playing fields not only make for a dynamic story but capture the instability and subjectiveness of identity and success. At certain points, the reader is able to see beyond Elena’s self-effacing interpretation of the friendship and realize that the rivalry and respect is indeed mutual. The identity of the titular brilliant friend is kept a mystery to the last.
Overall recommendation: Definitely read. This is a rich and lively portrait of a community and a friendship that will keep you turning the page and second-guessing your loyalties.
Overall rating: Nine out of ten pairs of Cerullo shoes
Books read: 2 of 50. Next on tap is book two in the series, The Story of a New Name.