Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Brilliant Friend

by Elena Ferrante
Europa     2012
331 Pages    Literary Fiction

My Brilliant Friend was a Christmas gift from my brilliant childhood friend, and I have been obsessed with it for several days. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for an Italian author, and there are four books in her Neapolitan Series about the lifelong friendship between two girls. Lila and Elena. The fourth book in the series, The Story of The Lost Child, was named one of the 10 best books of 2015 by the New York Times.

My Brilliant Friend is told by Elena, and most of it focuses on her relationship with Lila, beginning when they become friends in first grade until they are about 17. Lila is the daughter of a shoemaker; Elena's father is a porter at city hall. These are the years immediately following World War II, and times are tough. The girls live in a poor neighborhood of Naples, where work is valued and education is not. Elena is enamored with Lila, who is scrappy and independent, while she, on the other hand, is obedient and studious. Both girls are very bright and competitive at school. Both love learning. Both are the products of their environments.
Slowly the economy of Naples picks up and the lives of the families improves. We begin to understand that Elena will become educated and Lila will be stuck in the neighborhood, working as a cobbler in her father's shop. As Lila matures she becomes very beautiful and loved by the neighborhood boys, while Elena remains dumpy and studious. Lila is the litmus test for all of Elena's aspirations; she must bounce all the events of her life off Lila. Lila, on the other hand, wants to learn so badly that she becomes Elena's tutor by getting books out of the library to learn the same things Elena is learning. The elementary school teacher encourages both girls, but it is only Elena who remains in school.

Nothing much out of the ordinary happens, but the book is so brilliantly written that the reader hangs on every word. As I was reading My Brilliant Friend, I kept asking myself the question—"What is so compelling about this book?"  The New Yorker calls Ferrante's books "remarkable, lucid, austerely honest." Another word often used in reviews of this book is bildungsroman.  I had to look that one up—it means a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education. And indeed, that comprises the majority of the book, but we are only privvy to Elena's inner thoughts, and not Lila's. We only see Lila through Elena's eyes, and we witness the enormous changes happening to the lives of the girls as they reach adulthood. There are so many characters in the book that there is a index of characters at the beginning of the book, and believe me, I had to look at it frequently.

There is so much that women can relate to in this novel—best friends, dolls, puberty, the arrival of boys in a girl's life, and finally separation as the young women follow their separate destinies. In some ways, the book reminded me of West Side Story—the gritty neighborhood, the posturing boys trying to be men, the dialect of the street, the loss of opportunity. What Elena has that everyone else lacks is the chance for an education, which will in later volumes, take her away from the neighborhood.

As I was reading, I remembered acutely my 13-year-old daughter being told by her best friend of 6 years that they couldn't be friends anymore because they had "nothing in common." My daughter was crushed. I told her that she and her friend had everything in common and her friend would come back to her. That is what happened, and they remain friends to this day. This is the type of friendship that Elena and Lila would understand.

Then, of course, we must mention the mysterious author, Elena Ferrante. This picture, which I found on Google, may or may not be Ferrante. She chooses to remain anonymous because she feels that novels should stand on their own without the insertion of the author's personality. All interviews are done in writing. We must also consider the masterful translator, Ann Goldstein. This book would not have been quite so powerfully appealing without such a great translation.

I highly recommend My Brilliant Friend. I will soon begin book two, The Story of a New Name. In an interview with the New York Times, Ferrante said that she considers herself a storyteller first. I am eager to continue the story.

The New Yorker review of Ferante's books.
The interview in the New York Times.

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