My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is one of the books I have been meaning to read for years. It was translated to English in 2012 and was very popular in the states. It is the first of four books that comprise “The Neapolitan Novels”.
My Brilliant Friend takes place in the 1950s and early 1960s in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Italy. In the prologue, the narrator, Elena, learns that her lifelong friend, Lila, has disappeared at the age of 66-years-old. Elena knows that Lila wants to eliminate the entire life she left behind. Elena is determined to write their story, so it cannot disappear. In other words, Elena wants to win.
Thus begins the story of their childhood where Elena always felt second-fiddle to Lila. In elementary school, Lila was smarter, but also a disruptive student. Even though Lila’s parents did not allow her to attend middle school and high school, Elena still felt that Lila was one-step ahead and smarter. Instead of finding pride in how brilliant she was in school, Elena wanted to be able to compete with Lina. While Elena matured first physically, Lila soon caught up and surpassed all the girls with her beauty. Several young men were in love with her. Elena seemed constantly miserable and obsessed with their friendship.
The neighborhood itself is also part of the story. The desire to get out of poverty, the quest for money, conflicts with parents, adultery, neighborhood fights, and the acceptance of violence as a normal mode of behavior. Some scenes were shocking, including the time where Lila’s father angrily threw her out a window, breaking her arm. “Fathers could do that and other things to impudent girls.” It was no big deal. Also, the book ends with Lila getting married at age 16 to a 22-year-old. It was considered an honor for her to be married so young.
What makes this coming-of-age story so popular with readers? It is the writing style of Elena Ferrante. She doesn’t sugar-coat anything. The book is a realistic and gritty description of the life and struggles of an impoverished community. The characters, while they might not be likable, are very believable. 3.5-stars rounded up to 4 based on the writing style.
The novel ends with a cliffhanger. I immediately started reading Book Two: A Story of A New Name to find out what happened. The second novel was overly long and often boring. I had hoped the women would mature, but instead it was still about Lina’s obstinacy and Elena’s insecurities. 2-stars.