My Brilliant Friend (2012)

by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the four “Neapolitan Novels” of enigmatic Italian writer Elena Ferrante. The quartet is a huge hit here and abroad. Adding to its literary interest is the mystery surrounding the author, about whom little is known, not even whether Elena Ferrante is her real name.

Let her work speak for itself, the author has said, and there is indeed much to recommend her Neapolitan series. Most of all is the realism Ferrante brings to the portrayal of female friendship. The lives of Elena, the narrator, and Lila are intertwined from their meeting in first grade in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. Love and envy, loyalty and rivalry, support and betrayal—their relationship spans the spectrum at different times, neither all good nor all bad, just like friendships in real life. Also compelling are the intense look at the experience of growing up female at a time when males held all the power; Ferrante’s balanced tone, neither sentimental nor bitter; and her picture of a confined environment where violence is taken for granted.

Since Elena is the narrator, Lila presumably is the brilliant friend, and she is the more naturally gifted of the two. Lila is fierce, cagey, daring, and sometimes hard to figure out. Elena is self-doubting, impressionable, and pensive; she measures herself against Lila’s easy superiority. Sadly, Lila is forced by her family to give up school. While Elena, a disciplined student, progresses up the academic path with stellar grades, Lila teaches herself and sometimes tutors Elena.

My Brilliant Friend takes the girls into their 16th year, ending with Lila’s too-young marriage to a local grocer. There are dozens of other characters who aren’t well-developed and can be difficult to keep track of, and not much of a plot.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend takes place a half-century after the body of the book. Elena, age 66, is the writer she and Lila as children dreamed about becoming. She receives a call that Lila has gone missing. Convinced that Elena planned to disappear without a trace, Elena feels angry, so she sits down to write their story, issuing the challenge “We’ll see who wins this time.”

Elena and Lila’s tale continues in The Story of a New Name (2012). American Ann Goldstein has been praised for her translation of the four novels into English.


Home               My reviews               My friends' reviews