Author(s): Elena FerranteDownload
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. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists.
Some Reviews: 15814 in Goodreads.com
I have been studying Italian in my free time and so decided to try reading one of the most popular Italian writers of today: Elena Ferrante. There have been many articles about this author’s mysterious anonymity. Her real identity is unknown except to her publisher because she wishes to have a normal life. I get that. Still, it only adds to the intrigue, as you can’t help but wonder who writes these marvelous books. My Brilliant Friend is not the sort of book I would normally pick up as I prefer fantasy fiction. This is contemporary realistic fiction about two women who grow up together in the 1950s and 1960s in a poor neighborhood in Naples. The cast of characters is large, and for me, an American reader, I was missing some cultural context that made it a little bewildering at first. I read the book in English (because my Italian is not that good yet) and the style was both deeply intimate and jarringly matter-of-fact. The narrator Elena tells us everything about her upbringing in a neighborhood where harsh poverty is the norm and family violence is unremarkable, even, for instance, when a father sends a daughter flying out a second story window. Elena grows up side by side with her friend/foil/personal albatross Lila, who is naturally brilliant at everything and more beautiful than Elena, but who is held down by circumstances to work in her father’s shoe store while Elena has a chance to escape her life through education. The book is a blow-by-blow confessional, following the two girls from their earliest memories through their early adulthood. The short chapters keep the pages turning, and by the end of the novel I found myself very involved in the lives of the characters. It is epic in the best sense of the word, and yet quiet and personal in its scope. At the end, there is a cliffhanger so brutal I immediately had to go and buy the next volume of this series. Wow, cliffhangers work! I should try them some time . . .
What makes something a page-turner? This book is more than the sum of its (considerable) parts: Yes, the writing is great, the setting is vivid, the period sometimes shocking, the protagonist relatable and fun, the best friend one of the spunkiest, most endearing characters I’ve encountered, the supporting cast is varied and dizzying and each stands alone. But still: why am I gasping in shock when someone wears a particular pair of shoes. Why am I staying up late at night to finish? What happens in this book is often great and often fascinating, but what makes it a classic are the countless little moments of peace and the way that its not scared to repeat itself OR to veer wildly off course to follow its characters. It’s like life, in that way.
Another way it’s like life? Those damn Italian male names are impossible to keep straight. The dramatis personae list at the front is invaluable. As to who or what Ferrante really is? I like dust-ups as much as the next person, but man, do I not care. I just wish there were more books about female friendships.
Much has been written about My Brilliant Friend, so I’m not sure what I can add except for a few reactions to what I see as the three main characters:
< Elena — my heart aches for you. We all know an Elena (and some of us are Elena). The brilliant second fiddle, who is too focused and intertwined with her friend Lila’s life to appreciate her own talents, successes and hopes. I want to shake Elena, and to tell her to let go of Lila — just a bit at least — to stop hanging on Lila’s every word and emotions, and to find her own place…
< Lila — you too are brilliant, but you are so so hard on yourself and others. And Lila too is recognizable — although maybe not the extent of her brutality. Lila has a bit of love to dispense, but mostly she has so much anger tightly coiled inside her. I want to tell her first to breathe, and then to slow down before something terrible happens…
< Naples — yes, Naples is its own character in this book. You are so harsh, Naples, and you should hang your head in shame for making life so harsh for Elena and Lila, for creating the space in which these strong, brilliant, love starved and flawed characters experience lives defined by poverty, deprivation, grittiness and brutality. Naples’ complex layers of history, religion, criminality and politics make for a sharp edged vibrancy that is both fascinating and repulsive.
And now I have to find out what happens next in volume 2…
As my rating reflects, I was overwhelmed by this novel. The only Ferrante novel I had read before was her “Days of Abandonment,” which I thought overheated (and overrated). I retract any previous negative judgment: she is a major contemporary novelist and I will now go on immediately to her second Neapolitan novel, “The Story of a New Name.” This is a coming of age novel, true, but it is also much more than that. The relationship between Lila and Lenu, the latter the narrator, has a bit of the Mozart-Saliari theme: the frustration of the simply smart person up against someone of almost supernatural genius. The relationship unfolds in the suburbs of Naples with a surprising reversal, as we come to realize just who the “Brilliant Friend” really is. And the world of 1950s and 60s Naples is a brutal one, with young men obsessed to protect brutally their own “honor” and the imagined “honor” of the girls around them. Still, there is much, much more to this novel than I can go into here–it is a complex work filled with beautiful gems, particularly toward the end. I know of the mystery surrounding Elena Ferrante and the suggestion of some that she might be a male writer assuming a female name. Maybe, but I sense something very, very authentic about the voice of Lenu and the brutalizing male world that surrounds her and cannot quite believe a man could have written this (see also James Wood’s comments on this issue).
After finishing Elena Ferrante’s first novel in the Neapolitan Trilogy, I am of two minds. On the one hand, being a writer myself, it is demotivating, due to its frank brilliance; on the other, for an enthusiastic reader, it is thought-provoking and deeply engaging. And to think, this is only a translation! Though I am undeniably envious of Ferrante’s beautiful skill with words, I have to acknowledge that the growing hype around her is totally warranted, and in fact, I want to add to it:-)
The story is not the most remarkable, but it is the manner in which it is told that captivates the reader.
There is such fervor, but it is beautifully balanced with deeply nuanced thoughtfulness. The voice of Lenu is unique, yet relatable, and the manner in which the story unfolds, at times slowly and masterfully, at other times quick and jolting, makes for a highly engaging read. I have read all three available books (The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – the next one is coming out in September!!) and can only recommend them. The story grows deeper as the characters grow older, and begin to see the world around them through the eyes of young adults and grown women. Truly remarkable books!
A little update: The Story of the Lost Child was a brilliant ending to this series, read them all!
Today Ferrante’s identity has been ‘”revealed” by an intrusive article by The New York Review of Books. Though there was obviously curiosity on my part surrounding the person behind the name, the story and the imagination, I think it is important to remember she is an author, not a criminal or someone who deserves to be investigated and found out. It was her right to remain anonymous, and I find it disappointing and unethical for the Times to have outed her unwillingly.
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