Saturday, March 14, 2015

"My Brilliant Friend," by Elena Ferrante

The first thing I love about Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” (Europa Editions, 2012; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) is its intricate, dense, and very credible portrayal of a close friendship between two girls. Such portrayals are not common. Elena and Lila have grown up in a poor part of Naples in the 1950s, and their friendship is the great thread throughout their lives. The second thing I love about the book is that it takes the girls and their intellectual and emotional lives very seriously. Both of these girls are very bright, and interested in philosophical and other matters, but because of financial reasons and strict traditional ideas about women, it is hard for them to be allowed to study to any advanced level. Elena manages to do so, at least to high school; Lila does not, but studies on her own and outdoes all the other young women and men in the neighborhood in her knowledge. The emotional lives of these girls are a fascinating and realistic blend of the above-mentioned thirst for knowledge and the more traditional interests in boys and romance. Elena is a little more of a conformist than Lila, who usually does just what she wants, although in the end she shapes her life partly in a way that will benefit her family. I say “in the end,” but at the end of this novel the girls, although they seem much older, are only sixteen. They are both wonderfully clever and rather naïve, because they have such constricted lives; on the other hand, within their small universes, they see and experience a lot, good and bad. Until they were in their early teens, they had never been out of their own neighborhood in Naples. However, we can learn more about Elena and Lila: there are two more novels in this “Neopolitan Novels” series published so far, and a fourth and final one is to come this fall. There is a bit of intrigue about the author: “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, and there is some speculation about her true identity. Regardless, I was fascinated by being allowed into the world of these two girls, a world focused both on their tight friendship and on introducing us into the life of a certain part of a certain city, a life that is both very specific and universal. This novel lives up to the hype and the strong reviews it has received, with its exceptional quality of writing and its close-up view of two compelling characters and their close relationship in a neighborhood with all its activities and relationships vividly depicted. Now I need to read the other novels in order to find out what happens next to these friends.

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