This is the first volume in the Italian writer’s Neapolitan Novels series, and if the next three books are as good as this one I should make it to the end of the quadrilogy in no time at all.
My Brilliant Friend is set in the 1950s Naples, where two young girls, Elena and Lila, are growing up in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. Theirs is the world of casual domestic violence and intricate power play and feuds between the various families; death, whether it happens because of disease, accident or murder, is not treated as a remarkable event. Elena, who is also the novel’s narrator, is a gentle, unobtrusive, well-behaved girl who most people tend to like, whereas Lila is fiery, intense and unpredictable. Naturally brilliant academically, Lila also grows up to be more beautiful than Elena, and the novel details peaks and valleys of their complicated friendship, as well as their coming into adulthood. In many ways, Lila dominates Elena’s life and their friendship is a transformative experience that is both a blessing and a curse. Elena, who is no slouch at school herself, has low self-esteem and is tormented by an ever-present feeling of inferiority, while at the same time recognising that no one can energise and motivate her like Lila does. Education offers Elena a chance of escape, but Lila is forced to quit school and work for her father the cobbler, and her path towards what she hopes will be a better life is of a different nature altogether (prediction: it will not work out well).
The book also paints a vivid picture of Elena and Lila’s slummy neighbourhood, with a massive cast of characters who can be a bit hard to keep track of, especially if you take a short break from reading (a helpful index of characters at the start remedies that somewhat). It’s an insular world, a point brought across painfully in one chapter where the girls and their friends go for a stroll into a more affluent suburb, where young people just like them seem like creatures from another world; or a passage where Elena realises that all she’s ever been reading was novels and she has no idea of what happens in the wider world outside of their cocoon. I think what I appreciated the most about the book is the raw honesty with which the childhood and adolescence are depicted – Ferrante doesn’t shy away from the occasional pettiness, cruelty and unkind or uncomfortable thoughts of the characters, or their complicated feelings about sex, love and male attention. Ferrante also has a wonderful, lucid writing style that never feels pretentious even when she gets wordy and reflective (kudos to the translator, as well).
If there’s any flaw I found it’s that, while Elena is a very believable, well-rounded main character (many of us can relate to having a more accomplished friend who makes your insecurities rise to the surface), Lila doesn’t gel into a real person until maybe the very end, and often feels more like a walking device – the foil and the centre of Elena’s universe, the rebel and the force of nature etc. It’s true that we simply don’t get to see inside her head as much as we do Elena’s but then none of the supporting characters came off as artificial and nebulous to me. Nevermind though, by the end of the novel I felt deeply invested in both characters’ stories and I can’t wait to read more.