My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2012)
“Ignore the cover,” a friend warned me about the series—The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. So, I didn’t pay much attention to the odd cover of the first of four books in the series, My Brilliant Friend. It is a soft-focus image of a couple at a wedding on a beach, three flower girls in puffy pink dresses following them.
I read the prologue, sighed, and shut the book. It would be that kind of book. The kind that makes you want to call into work, forget to eat, and hold your pee. The kind of book that you want to inhale.
Ferrante introduces the characters in the prologue in their present. We then travel back to their childhood and learn about their lives through Elena Greco or Lenù. She tells the story of her life and her closest friend’s life, Raffaella Cerullo or Lila. Ferrante reveals that their world isn’t a rich one and the children develop a desire for money and to achieve more than what their parents have. My Brilliant Friend takes place in a neighborhood outside of Naples in the 50s. The plot centers around the relationship of Lenù and Lila and how their lives are impacted by class, sexism, and the weariness of a nation after war.
In school, Lenù studied hard to keep up with Lila; however, Lenù advances to middle school whereas Lila does not. But it is not because Lila isn’t smart enough that she doesn’t advance—it is only because her parents do not pay for her to take the tests necessary. Through this event Lenù’s insecurities about her intelligence and her place beside, above, or below Lila begin to dominate her thoughts and is an active presence in the relationship between the two girls. Ferrante tenderly pushes Lenù through the embarrassment and shame of not knowing whether Lila is friend, frenemy, or nothing at all. After a failed day of skipping classes to see the sea, Lenù wonders:
“Was it possible? She had taken me with her hoping that as a punishment my parents would not send me to middle school? Or had she brought me back in such a hurry so that I would avoid that punishment? Or—I wonder today—did she want at different moments both things?”
The struggle of intelligence and class intensifies as Lenù reaches her teen years. Ferrante works past Lenù’s doubts and allows Lila’s perceptions and her own troubles and worry slip into Lenù’s narrative. Lenù begins to see her double life, in one she is a scholar who has a future and in the other she is part of her town gang who speak dialect and may not make it out of their neighborhood. Eventually Lenù recognizes that Lila has her own struggle—to rise above what has been prescribed for her.
“Sometimes I felt a strong need to go and see Lila at the shop and talk to her about the characters I liked best, sentences I had learned by heart, but then I let it go: she would say something mean; she would start talking about the plans she was making with Rino, shoes, shoe factor, money and I would slowly feel that the novels I read were pointless and that my life was bleak, along with the future, and what I would become: a fat pimply salesclerk in the stationery store across from the parish church, an old maid employee of the local government, sooner or later cross-eyed and lame.”
My Brilliant Friend will sweep you off your feet. Ferrante navigates the reader through the biased perception of one character while never letting any of the other characters slip into one-dimensionality. Her writing is smooth and conversational and her descriptions make you feel like you could really know what it was like to be in Italy in the 50s.
“But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead….The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white of foam on their peaks, then broke in a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an o of wonder and fear from those watching.”