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…
“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…