My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

It seems that the successes of word of mouth recommendations are still alive and well if we look at Elena Ferrante. Her publishers have not spent lavish amounts on publicising her, in fact no one knows who she is as she likes to keep herself a secret somewhere in Italy (though she could be in Brazil or Bognor for all we know). Yet her latest novels which form the Neapolitan Novels series and start with 2012’s My Brilliant Friend are selling like hotcakes, some several tyears after originally coming out – that is such a brilliant story of readers suddenly loving something en masse and then spreading the word. So after being reminded, quite sternly but passionately, by Daniela of Europa Editions (who publish them here in the UK) that I really, really, really needed to read them recently, I have finally done so…

Europa Editions, paperback, 2012, fiction, translated by Ann Goldstein, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend starts with something of a mystery. The novel opens with our protagonist Elena, who could actually be the author indeed, as she receives a call from Rino, the son of her close friend of over sixty years, Lila, to tell her that his mother has gone missing. Elena isn’t surprised, for it seems Lila has always been quite ‘a character’ since their friendship and has always said that at some point she will vanish from the world and if Lila is going to do something she does. Elena instead of worrying, decides to write down the story of her friendship with Lila from the grimy streets of Naples of their childhood, and so begins My Brilliant Friend.

To try and explain My Brilliant Friend simply a tale of two girls growing up together, which I have seen it described as, I think is quite lazy. Okay that is the overall plot; we follow them from early school days until one of them gets married. Yet friendships themselves are complex relationships and also have their own trajectories. Elena and Lila initially become aware of each other before becoming best friends, falling out, becoming friends again, running away together, starting petty jealousies and competitions and then having the testing time of their teens where one is able to carry on going to school and one is not. This all sounds relatively simple, we have read such stories before, yet I don’t think I have read friendship written so frankly and intricately before, even the complexity of forming a friendship at a young age.

Lila knew I had that fear, my doll talked about it out loud. And so, on the day we exchanged our dolls for the first time – with no discussions, only looks an gestures – as soon as she had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into darkness.

I don’t know about you but I can still remember those moments of forging friendships as a kid and how hard it all was to gage, especially when all you wanted to do was play house or build She-Ra a castle in the sandpit. For example, I remember when my friend since 4 years old, Polly, gave me the signal in the playground we could be friends when she made her fingers into a gun and shot me. We hadn’t spoken much before, twenty-nine years later still the best of friends. Anyway the reason I mention this, is not a detour of waffle as you might think, is that it illustrates how Ferrante almost instantly made me empathise with Elena and Lila whatever it was they were going to go through and how your friends just become your friends even when (this doesn’t apply to you Polly, if you are reading this) sometimes you wonder if you actually like them as a person, though of course the person we know in private and the one that they appear in public tend to be very different, most of the time.

Lila was malicious: this, in some secret place in myself, I still thought. She had shown me not only that she knew how to wound with words but that she would kill without hesitation, and yet those capacities now seemed to me of little importance. I said to myself: she will release something more vicious, and I resorted to the word “evil”, an exaggerated word that came to me from childhood tales. But if it was a childish self that unleashed these thoughts in me, they had a foundation of truth. And in fact, it slowly became clear not only to me, who had been observing her since elementary school, but to everyone, that an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila.

Friendship isn’t the only thing that we read about, nor is it the only thing that is intricately written about. The neighbourhood and the neighbours are also a huge part of the book, and what a neighbourhood it is. Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.”  And she is not half wrong; there are extramarital affairs, brawls, madness, assault, business wars, class wars and one-upmanship, even murder. The book brims with intricate tales and moments that weave behind the curtains of the houses around Elena and Lila and occasionally to sit at, or be talked about around, their dining tables. Yet what I thought was marvellous about this was that there are no bangs and whistles or big fanfares, things happen and Ferrante writes about them frankly without much drama just great writing.

He gave me ten lire and we all went, silently, to the top floor of a building near the public gardens. There, next to the iron door that led to the terrace, where I was clearly outlined by slender segments of light, I lifted up my shirt and showed them my breasts. The two stood staring as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. Then they turned and ran down the stairs.
I heaved a sigh of relief and went to Bar Solara to buy myself an ice cream.

I am not normally a fan of the coming of age novel, or indeed the more fancy title for it, bildungsroman, I was strangely charmed by this one. In part I liked it simply because it is a tale of two people growing up somewhere very different from me so from the foods to the customs I was intrigued. What I found really interesting was the aspects of the competition verses the companionship of the girls really interesting (I have seen this happen with many of my female friends with their female friends) and how each girl tries to keep both dynamics going yet also trying to figure out their futures where class, education and even beauty are all part and parcel of success according to the society they grow up in at a certain time in a certain place.

I am pleased I have finally read My Brilliant Friend and spent time with Elena and Lila, I am looking forward to finding out where their friendship will go in the next three Neapolitan Novels as well as what happens to the people and the place around them. I am doubly thrilled to have finally read Ferrante though whose writing just gets me; the people, the situations, everything seems so vivid and real. I found myself completely engaged without needing any gimmicks or over blown plots, just a story of two girls and the complexities that friendship brings. I now want to read all her books, especially as I have heard some of her standalone ones can be incredibly dark, so I will be on the hunt for those in particular soon. How lovely to find a new to me author with so many more books to discover.

Have you read My Brilliant Friend and if so what did you think? Have you read the rest, or more, of the Neapolitan Novels, what treats (without spoilers) do I have ahead? Have you read any of Ferrante’s other standalone novels and if so what did you make of them? Questions, questions, questions…

13 Comments

Filed under Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, Review

13 responses to “My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

  1. I read it recently and absolutely loved it and became boringly evangelical about it! It was quite slow to grab me but then it did and I immediately went out and bought the next one. Without giving away any spoilers it was that final image of the shoes on the ‘wrong’ man so to speak which appalled and gripped.

  2. I’ve read Ferrantes three novellas and found her writing utterly compelling. Got the first 3 Neopolitans ready for #WITMonth – can’t wait!

  3. Ruthiella

    I read My Brilliant Friend earlier this year and I absolutely loved it. Like Vicky commented above, I did struggle a bit with the first 20 pages or so, but then I was hooked and could not put it down. I went into it with no expectations really (which is the best way to read I think, when possible). I had only heard that Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels were comparable to those autobiographical tomes by Knausgaard (which I have not read). I agree with your review; the depiction of childhood friendship in the book was remarkable and true. I definitely plan the rest of the books in this series and maybe when finished try one of her standalone novels.

  4. I’ve read the first two of the Neapolitan novels I have number three somewhere within the tottering piles. I think I slightly preferred the second one although it’s hard to choose. I haven’t read any Ferrante stand alone yet.

  5. sharkell

    Funny, I read this over Christmas last year. I actually put it down after them first 100 pages, went and checked the reviews I had read which raved about it, read a couple of other books, then picked it up again and loved it. I’m glad I persevered.

  6. I’ve had this on my to-read pile for ages but haven’t yet picked up. I read a couple of very mixed reviews that put me off a bit. If you like it I have hope for it again as I tend to agree with you!

  7. I found it as gorgeous as you did. It’s the way history and setting are woven into the story that makes it more than a coming of age novel. I’ve the second in-waiting; the plan is to be all caught up for the fourth. That said, I preferred Days of Abandonment. Now that book is a slap in the face!

  8. Amy

    I’ve been really tempted to read these since they sort of exploded in the press. This review & the comments (plus the fact I’m mourning my holiday in Italy) has definitely bumped this up my to buy list.

  9. Polly

    Great review Simon! I really enjoyed this book too. Such evocative writing.

    Childhood friendships are complex – for some reason ours looking back was pretty straightforward, though I do remember feeling rather jealous when you got She-ra and I got He-man, boo hoo!! Scarred for life…😉

  10. Excellent review, Simon. I have already read the next two and they have maintained my interest in the lives of Elena and Lila. The fourth and final book is highly anticipated by me. I think kudos need to be given to the brilliant translator as well.

  11. Lovely review! I read this recently and loved it, it was interesting (though I shouldn’t have been so surprised) that a girl in a different culture could still experience something so relatable. Just shows what can transcend environment.

    I’ve got the next one lined up to read, very much looking forward to revisiting these old friends.

  12. micheleframe

    I just finished the third in the series. For me, they just keep getting better and better.

  13. I loved, loved, loved it. Excellent review by the way. I think it does compare with the Knausgaard books, at least with the 150 pages of the first one which I read and intend to finish someday. It’s also excellent, but not as compelling.

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