Title: My Brilliant Friend
Author: Elena Ferrante
Published: 26 March 2015
Publisher: Text Publishing
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Cultural – Italty, Translation
Rating: 3 stars
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.
The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.
Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a trilogy, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.
My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in a quartet of novels written by reclusive Italian writer Elena Ferrante, has certainly garnered many positive reviews since it was published in 2012. I am not entirely sure that I have anything new to add to the sheer volume of reviews this book has attracted, but here is my take anyway.
The book opens in the present, as a mature woman named Elena, receives a frantic phone call from her lifelong friend’s son, notifying her of Lila’s disappearance. Elena lets us know that Lila’s disappearance was planned and thus this sets off a mystery that will engulf the four novels in this series. Lila’s disappearance spurs Elena on to pen her memories of the two girls growing up in an underprivileged village in Naples. Elena chronicles the girl’s initial meeting, where their dolls first made friends. Along the way, we learn of the childhood they spent together, negotiating the fairly normal aspects of childhood and adolescence many will be able to relate to. Added to this are the difficult circumstances the two girls live in. We learn that in 1950’s Naples, life expectancy is not high, disease, abuse and beatings are rife. For females in this area, their life is restricted further by the limited access of further schooling. There is also the common expectation of both marrying young and having children. Lila and Elena are talented and brilliant young girls in their own right, but Ferrante demonstrates through the unfolding storyline, how their life chances are impacted by social class. Lila is the youngest child of a shoemaker and Elena the daughter of a porter. Both girl’s long to break the mould of their expected pathways, but in the end it is Elena who triumphs.
I am a relative latecomer to My Brilliant Friend, I purchased it, along with its sequels, sometime last year. The reason why I have taken so long to read My Brilliant Friend, is that I wanted to make sure I had enough time set aside to digest this book and the subsequent books in the series. So I went into this book with mixed feelings – I really wanted to love this book, as I had invested in purchasing the follow on books, but I had read a number of conflicting reviews. Initially, I didn’t think it quite lived up to my expectations, but the cliff hanger and the pull I felt to read book two, managed to sway my overall opinion of the novel.
There are a few reasons why I enjoyed My Brilliant Friend. Firstly, I appreciated the setting. I always welcome an opportunity to be introduced to a time period and location I have not read about before. My Brilliant Friend certainly sucked me into the Italian setting of Naples, in the 1950’s. Ferrante recreates this world with a sense of understanding and place that only someone who has lived in this part of the world would be able to do. Likewise, I loved learning about Lila and Elena’s experiences growing up and entering adolescence, in a part of the world that is so different to my own experiences. Despite how far removed it is to my life experience, I could still relate.
The character element of the novel was more problematic for me. Whilst I did connect with the central narrator Elena, as well as her lifelong friend Lila, the sheer number of outer characters who drift in and out of the story became confusing. I could see the importance these people played to the overall story, as they clearly served to highlight the village setting on the novel. I did feel at times my slipping grip on the high volume of characters did detract from my enjoyment of the story. The family list at the front of the novel only helped a little in this regard.
On a positive note, I did like the ground My Brilliant Friend manages to cover. The power of girlhood friendship was a theme that enjoyed and took away from my experience of reading this novel. In addition, themes of childhood, to growing up, negotiating school life, the complications of family relationships, love and marriage presented themselves to me. All were covered with a unique sense of insight. There was a darker side of the novel, such as instances of spousal abuse, physical violence, poverty, disease and death that highlights the rawness of the time in which Elena and Lila live in. The experiences offered up by Ferrante were like nothing I had read before, her tone was incredibly stark.
The mystery that is set up in the early pages of the novel centred on Lila’s planned disappearance and the confusion experienced by her son, is one of the main reasons why I felt compelled to stay with this novel. I wanted to know why Lila was driven to stage her own disappearance. At the conclusion of My Brilliant Friend, I was not given an answer to this question, rather a cliff hanger instead. Although this novel didn’t completely grab me, it did so in its own subtle way. Soon after closing My Brilliant Friend, I picked up book two, The Story of a New Name to read. I didn’t truly love or hate My Brilliant Friend, so I’m going to sit on the fence this time and rate it a firm 3 stars.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante was published in Australia in March 2015 by Text Publishing, details on how to purchase a copy can be found here.