My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale #1)
By: Elena Ferrante
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
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.
I’ve long seen her books in passing whenever I’m browsing what’s new in the translated fiction lists (I think Days of Abandonment was the first book of hers that I added to my GoodReads wishlist). I’ve heard so much buzz about her Neapolitan books in recent months that I finally decided to delve into Elena Ferrante’s works. I think I mentioned a few times in the last few months that I was going to wait until the bulk of my offline stuff was finished to settle back and enjoy the book, and the minute the long weekend hit last month, I just started reading this book. And couldn’t stop 😛 May contain spoilers ahead?
I admit, it did take a few chapters to get a hang of the writing. It might be because it is translated, but Elena and Lila’s friendship and childhood and adolescence is narrated from Elena’s perspective, and for a while she does jump back and forth out of chronological order to give readers a sense of how interconnected all these families and the neighbourhood is before truly delving into their story. Also, there was a strange abundance of commas throughout the novel. Whether it helped the overall narration of the story, I’m not sure.
But I digress. My Brilliant Friend was unputdownable for me. There was something about the narrative, about Elena and Lila’s story, that compelled me forward. Maybe it was the strange nature of their relationship, maybe it was the environment in which they grew up in, maybe it was the individual characters. The time in which Elena and Lila grew up in was quite rough, from the dangers of the neighbourhood, the violence and brutality present even within the families and the way children were raised. Poverty was also a constant factor, especially stark whenever the girls ventured to the centre of Napoli or even growing up and just thinking about amassing great wealth. For two girls like Elena and Lila, the options of getting out were few, and in the case of Lila, they can be closed down quite quickly despite of whatever promise they show in school.
But the two friends and the friendship they share is the highlight of this novel. They couldn’t be any different–Lila was unpredictable and fiery whereas Elena was more cautious and appeasing–and yet they became friends. Lila proved at an early age to be quite the voracious and quick learner whereas Elena had to push herself more, study harder, to attain the same grades as Lila. For a while Lila also tutored her, yet in the end it is Elena who continued on with her schooling. I honestly couldn’t quite make sense of Lila for most of the book: she’s brilliant and tough, she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and yet her bravery can border on reckless, her behaviour sometimes aloof and distant…In short, she was unpredictable. Granted, we’re reading this from Elena’s perspective, but as confusing as she was, she was quite fascinating to read.
I really felt sorry for Elena for most of the book, she often seemed relegated to the shadows whenever Lila was around; everything she did seemed to always pale in comparison to Lila, whether it was her marks or her writing or even the attention from the boys. Even when Elena started to develop her own confidence and recognise her own strenghts outside of her friendship with Lila, there’d always be something in Lila’s life that would bring her down or make her feel sad or out of place with what she ought to be doing. But despite of this, I feel like she’s still on the road to discovering who she is and becoming comfortable with that knowledge and in her strengths and I think she’ll go far
not to mention I accidentally read the book blurbs for the next two books as I was preparing the templates for these posts.
Thus together it’s uncanny to read and watch as their friendship unfolds, goes through its highs and lows, periods of lack of correspondence to hanging out continuousy. I think the author really captures these highs and lows in their friendship and the complexity it can hold quite brilliantly; there are unspoken jealousies, but there is also support in times of duress. Whenever one’s life is going well, the other is going through a rough patch, and vice versa. Depending on where they are in their lives and who come in and out of them–new friends, boyfriends–they may grow apart or come together, but the connection is always there. Elena at one point remarks that even when she can’t stand to be around Lila, eventually she’d want to meet up with her and talk about this thing or that.
This review doesn’t do the book justice by any stretch, but overall My Brilliant Friend was just amazing. The complexity of the girls’ friendship, not to mention their experiences with their families, their neighbourhood, growing up, was just compelling enough to keep on reading. It feels like a coming-of-age story in one sense, but at the same time the story’s not over. Napoli in this book was undergoing changes, which is noted when you read passages about changes being made in the centre of town, not to mention the politics and the thinking that was slowly emerging as Elena progressed in her studies. At the same time much of the old traditions and behaviours persisted, not to mention how easily peope got into fights over the course of this book. I probably missed a number of other elements about this novel that were fascinating to read–the political/social/class/language divide, etc.–but the bottom line is, I highly recommend this novel if you’re looking for a book featuring complex female characters and relationships.
On a final note, how could this book end with (what I consider to be) a cliffhanger? Thank goodness I picked up all three books in one go 😛