It may sound weird because I’m Italian, but I only heard of Elena Ferrante’s novels a few months ago. I was born and raised in Milan and my whole family still lives there, but I’ve been studying and working abroad for the past 14 years. It was blogging that actually introduced me to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series. Before then, I didn’t really focus my reading around newer or more popular titles – I was less systematic about it. This summer, I read on Twitter that Amy Schumer really loved Ferrante’s writing, and since then it seems that Ferrante (her identity and her novels) has been a constant topic of discussion in the book world.
I try to read books in Italian throughout the year to keep up my proficiency. I’m bilingual in Italian and English, but living in the U.S., if I didn’t practice my Italian by speaking with my family and reading, it would get rusty fast. When I go home twice a year to see my family, I visit my neighborhood bookstore and purchase a few titles in my mother tongue. In August of this year I decided to buy Elena Ferrante’s first two Neapolitan Series novels. I loved the first two so much that I’ve decided to review them in a four-part series on my blog. I’m planning on buying the 3rd and 4th books (Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story Of The Lost Child) during my Christmas trip to Milan (I leave on Sunday). Here is my review of My Brilliant Friend.
My Brilliant Friend (L’Amica Geniale) by Elena Ferrante
Plot Teaser (from Amazon)
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.
What I Liked
The realistic portrayal of the life and culture of impoverished Southern Italian neighborhoods. I grew up in relative affluence in Milan so I don’t have first hand experience with the kinds of impoverished and mafia-riddled neighborhoods of Naples described in the novel. Because I’ve lived in Italy, however, I do know a realistic portrayal of these neighborhoods when I see it. Ferrante brings to life the ‘rione’ in which Lila and Elena’s life unfolds with frightening clarity. Its causal violence, the despair and determination of its inhabitants, the often hopeless struggle of young men and women to rise above the miserly circumstances of their parents, the lack of options for exceptionally bright women like Lila and Elena. Ferrante is incredibly skilled in creating the neighborhood as an additional character in the novel which acts almost as a substitute Fate that keeps Lila and Elena mired in its quicksand.
The complex and contradictory friendship between Elena and Lila. I’m very proud to see a fellow Italian woman gaining international relevance for her art, and though I didn’t grow up in similar circumstance to Ferrante’s protagonists Lila and Elena, I did find traces of my own childhood in My Brilliant Friend. I think childhood friendships are often the most fraught because the participants are still creating their own sense of self and figuring out their moral standards. Ferrante brings to life Elena and Lila’s friendship through moments of blinding and nearly-physical passion that are alternated with chilling instances of jealousy and even pure hatred. I felt that their friendship reminded me at different instances of some of my own childhood friendships, full of insecurity, dependency and awkwardness. Elena tries very hard to identify herself with Lila, to be like her, to follow her example in everything. By the end of the book she’s forced to realize that they are different people. By taking Elena and Lila down very different paths, Ferrante explores the tension that can build between friends as their lives diverge. This also becomes a significant theme in the second Neapolitan novel – The Story Of A New Name – and I suspect in the later novels in the series as well.
The portrayal of gender issues. Ferrante explores the machismo of the men that surround Elena and Lila, their quickness to anger and their protectiveness of the women in their families, despite their ability to turn against these same women and hit them in their fury. The young women in Ferrante’s novel seem endlessly vulnerable to the reader, viewing marriages of expedience as one of the only ways out of their poverty. Sex is sometimes portrayed as a form of power over men, but more often seen as a source of anxiety, humiliation or ruin. The women in Ferrante’s novel are central to the narrative, but in reality secondary to the whims of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and even their male friends. This machismo culture is certainly still present to varying degrees in Italy today, though it luckily may no longer reach the extremes depicted in the novel.
What I Didn’t Like
The pace in certain parts of the novel. There were sections of the novel that felt somewhat slow-paced and repetitive, in which Elena reflected on her latest break with Lila or had yet another fight with her parents over her education. Overall, there was still enough action to keep my story moving, but there were a few chapters that definitely dragged compared to the rest of the book.
A powerful portrayal of two young women who, allied and pitted against each other in turns, struggle to define themselves in a world that tries to extinguish their value.
About Elena Ferrante (in part from her website)
Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), and The Lost Daughter (2008) and the four volumes of the Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, and The Story Of The Lost Child). She is also the author of a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night and a work of non-fiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym that the author employs to retain her anonymity. Ferrante has been quoted as saying in the past that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” and has maintained that anonymity is necessary for her writing process. Despite Ferrante’s desire to remain anonymous, there has been speculation by members of the media about the author’s true identity. Elena Ferrante was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People Of The Year in April 2016.
Here are my Italian language versions of My Brilliant Friend and The Story Of A New Name in all their glory on Novel And Nonfiction’s instagram. I love their pastel blue and mint colored covers!
Have you read My Brilliant Friend or any of Elena Ferrante’s novels? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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