My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

In case you don’t want to read a post about a non-genre book: I may post my plans for holiday reading in a couple of days (if I can make them more specific than All The Books); I’ll post about my favorite reads of the year after Christmas; and I’ll do a round-up of my recent reading/listening sometime over the holidays, too. 

I’ve had Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, in my TBR for a while, and I pulled it out after a Twitter conversation with a few friends about how we Cover of My Brilliant Friend. The background is the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius. In the foreground, a bride, groom, and three little girls in ruffly, shiny pastel dresses and hair ribbons walking away from us, on a green field.have more trouble than we used to getting into slow books. Is it age? busyness? distractions? All those, but maybe, someone speculated, reading a lot of genre fiction–romance in particular, which emphasizes starting with action–had atrophied our concentration. She was planning to pick up a book that would give her a challenge, and I decided I wanted one too, especially because I haven’t been in the mood for romance. My Brilliant Friend is part of a projected trilogy about two friends from a working-class Naples neighborhood, Elena and Lila; Ferrante describes the books in a fascinating interview as “one long story.” This volume covers childhood and adolescence. (The idea of reflecting on a chunk of 20th century history by depicting a woman living through it reminded me of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet.)

I can think of a handful of books that capture the weirdness of childhood, the parts we’d rather forget once we’re grown: the strange fears and imaginings, the confusion, the cruelty children are capable of. On my list would be Dickens’ Great Expectations and David Copperfield (Dickens is often deeply sentimental about childhood, but he gets it too), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (and really, Emily’s Wuthering Heights), Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And now I’d add My Brilliant Friend.

The story of the girls’ encounter with Don Achille, whom Elena thinks of as “the ogre of fairy tales” because she has been forbidden even to look at him, is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the first section of the novel, with the result that it casts a menacing shadow over the episodes which introduce us to their families and neighbors–which is fitting, since the whole neighborhood fears Don Achille.

My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. . . . We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors at that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.

At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. That gesture changed everything between us forever.

“Exposing ourselves to fear [and other dark things] and interrogating it” is not a bad description of the novel’s way of proceeding, really: Ferrante’s picture of childhood is anything but sentimental. “I feel no nostalgia for my childhood,” narrator Elena declares, “it was full of violence,” much of it inexplicable to her.

Along with the tensions of the neighborhood, Ferrante does not shy away from depicting the envy and resentment that is often as much a part of Elena and Lila’s friendship as love. Elena, who narrates, often feels she is in Lila’s shadow, but it’s Lila who actually says “my brilliant friend,” describing Elena. Competition with each other, as well as a desire to escape their violent, circumscribed world, drives them on. If you’ve ever wished you could be a friend who seems smarter, or more beautiful, or more interesting than you are, you’ll recognize Elena’s feelings for Lila.

As children, they never leave the neighborhood; it comes as a surprise to the reader that the beach and downtown Naples are only a bus ride away. But adolescence enlarges their world. Not only do they venture farther afield (Elena to middle and high school, Lila to work in her father’s shoe repair shop) but they begin to understand the history underlying the violence, battles, and interdictions of their world.

Off-hand comments in the first section tell us this is a just post-war childhood: they pass rubble and wrecked tanks; another child is killed when he finds an unexploded bomb. This past marks the neighborhood in ways beyond the physical. Lila in particular begins to ask questions, and, “gripped by a frenzy of absolute disclosure,” reports to Elena on the wartime sins of their neighbors: “that one turned in a lot of people . . . these people’s money comes from the hunger of others, this car was bought by selling bread adulterated with marble dust.” The ogre Don Achille ran the black market.

Gradually their world begins to make more sense, but will that growing understanding help them find a way to escape it? Can a younger generation escape the past and the violence memory perpetuates, or will their relationships, too, be governed by it? Those questions remain unanswered at the end of this novel, a point when at 16 Lila and Elena seem to be drifting apart, seeking different ways to escape into a wider, better life. We know from the prologue, set many years later, that they won’t lose sight of each other altogether. I have the next book, The Story of a New Name, and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of them in young womanhood.

I have totally failed to do justice to this book, but I had to say something. It’s not an easy book, but (or because) it captures the intensity and difficulty of coming of age, but narrated from an ironic, reflective distance. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

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6 Responses to My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

  1. SonomaLass says:

    This book sounds … exhausting, to be honest. I know I’m in the “easy reader” club recently as well. I have also taken a pledge to read something slower and more dense than genre fiction — but not until after I get through the last of the grading, Christmas, and Hawaii.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, I admit at a certain point I read a lot because it was kind of depressing and I wanted to get out of it. But it was not long, and really absorbing, so if I made it sound exhausting I DID fail to do it justice. Partly it’s that the violence and the emotions are described from a somewhat dispassionate distance. It’s not really an emotional roller-coaster of a book, despite the material she’s working with.

      I’m not sure why grading/Christmas prep seemed like the right time for this kind of book, because like you I usually wait to do more demanding reading until work is making fewer intellectual demands on me. But somehow it felt more “escapist” just now than the romance I was trying to read (which I’m now ready for).

  2. willaful says:

    You can tell I’m in the same place, because my immediate thought it, I wonder if I can get it on audio. :-\

    Have you ever read The World of Henry Orient, btw? Not the same kind of book, but such an interesting friendship story.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That sounds great! And vaguely familiar, but I don’t think I ever read it. I’ll look out for it.

      Friendships are so important, but they rarely get serious treatment in fiction–they’re just as complex as romantic relationships, sometimes just as fraught and involving of hurt and forgiveness, etc. (Actually, children’s books are more apt to do it well, because those characters don’t have romantic relationships yet).

  3. Sunita says:

    Wow, that sounds fascinating. I am wary of coming-of-age books as a category but the backdrop of the girls’ lives sounds like something I’d really like to read as well. And how refreshing to read a book about a friendship between girls that isn’t shaped by their feelings about a boy.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One of the things Ferrante is interested in is how the place/time we’re from shapes us, and in a lot of ways these characters are so different from me, but at the same time I recognized their ambitions and desires and lack of self-confidence (alternating with its opposite) from my own youth.

      There ARE boys, and fathers and brothers, but that doesn’t really dominate the story, in part because both girls are aware of just how patriarchal their world is (though they wouldn’t put it that way). There’s no idealizing of men here, even though there are crushes and boyfriends. That was refreshing, I must say. (Not that the men are universally awful, either–but they are *expected* to be aggressive and violent and I thought that was explored in interesting ways).

      I grabbed this partly because you were talking about I PROMESSI SPOSI and I thought “Hey, I’ve got something Italian in my TBR,” so thanks. I took a little Italian in college and I thought the translation seemed good; not at all stilted but the sentence rhythms were different from English.

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