Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. It is, quite frankly, one of the best books that I have ever read. Inside the front cover, there are three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times, to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian, to the best (and most creative): “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one”, from the LA Times. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language – not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.
I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day, which is incredible given that we live in the digital age and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016! We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?
Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights, and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes! The prologue sets up the series’ premise: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!
(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)
Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.
Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying. So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…
Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.
Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…
Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…
… and that’s where it ends!
It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book (The Story Of A New Name) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on my original reading list before I can add any new ones! Gah!
I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.
Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës. Get in early, and read it now!
Update: I’m continuing on with the Neapolitan Quartet! Read my full review of the next book, The Story Of A New Name, here.
My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:
- “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
- “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
- “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
- “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
- “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.