Portrait of a friendship

A review of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The premise of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend is simple: Lila and Elena are friends the moment they band together and venture up the stairs to their frightening neighbor’s door. The occasion was an apt beginning; Elena holding back, fearful, as Lila pushed forward with an unstoppable force, disregarding the consequences. The women will eventually take different paths in life, but their uncannily close and sometimes strained relationship remains a constant as they navigate the complexities of girl- and womanhood through the volatile Naples of the 1950s and 60s. In the end, My Brilliant Friend is a finely wrought portrait of female friendship that captures both of its subjects in an intimate and frank journey toward adulthood.

Though both girls grow up in the same poor Naples neighborhood, their relationship seems at first unusual: Elena, brainy and withdrawn, narrates the novel. Lila, as seen through Elena’s eyes, is the bolder one with a sort of bravado that causes even the Carmorra-linked boys to back down from her. But even in the opening scene where Lila and Elena brave the neighborhood ogre, there is a sense of wariness between the two, as if neither wishes to become too vulnerable before the other. Perhaps that is what makes Ferrante’s work stand apart from other fiction of women’s relationships. Though the book ends when the girls are both sixteen, both Lila and Elena see their world through distinctly adult eyes, even as children playing with dolls. Nineteen-fifties Naples inhabits the novel as its own character, and neither Lila or Elena regard the occasional violence or poverty as very significant until they near adulthood. Strained relations between neighbors and family members (especially mothers) are the norm, and it is the navigation of these relationships that really make up the plot of the book. Those looking for a descernable story arc will be disappointed. Instead, the thrust of the story relies on the flex of Lila’s and Elena’s connection, and to a lesser extent those about them in the small world of their Naples home. The immediacy of the depiction of Naples at that time is so realized that it has led to a lot of speculation as to the identity of Ferrante, whose anonymity has prompted much speculation about how much her writing may be semi-autobiographical.  (For more on Ferrante’s identity and her approach to writing, check out this Guardian article and a recent interview in the New York Times.) 

My Brilliant Friend is the first in Ferrante’s four part Neopolitan series. Each book traces Elena and Lila to a particular milestones and potentially partings. The opening to My Brilliant Friend hints at what the future holds for the women, but the final chapter of the story will come this September when Ferrante completes the cycle with The Story of the Lost Child. Like all the other books in the series, it will be translated by Ann Goldstein, who renders Ferrante’s original Italian into seamless English.   

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