Sunday, February 14, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The buzz for The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante snuck up on me. I don’t know when I first caught the name or heard the suggestion that these books were should-reads, but all of a sudden, they are everywhere. There are four of them, and they seemed to burst on the scene simultaneously. I think that has something to do with them being Italian novels that were more recently translated and released in English, so a large following was already there. However, no matter how it happened, I felt I had to hurry up and get started because I was already behind.

Elena Ferrante is a pen name for a an acclaimed Italian author whose real name is kept secret. Her novels have all been translated by Ann Goldstein. Often when I read a translation of something contemporary I feel like the prose is a bit clunky. That is not the case in this first novel of the series: My Brilliant Friend.

These novels follow the intense friendship of two women living in Naples in the 1950s and 60s. It didn’t sound like something I would necessarily be interested in, but I couldn’t ignore the hype. (The New York Times Book Review called Ferrante "one of the great novelists of our time.") So I started with book 1.

My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena Greco, now middle-aged, receiving word that her best friend, Lila, has disappeared. The disappearance is total. Clothes, personal belongings, photographs, everything that bore witness to her existence is gone. Elena knows this erasure of life is intentional on Lila’s part.

Elena pushes back, in part from resentment, in part from love, in part from exasperation. She decides to recreate Lila’s existence by telling their story. The two lives are so intricately interwoven that you couldn’t tell the story of one without the other. So she begins.

This first novel recounts their childhood, growing up in the midst of poverty, violence, and traditional expectations for men’s and women’s roles. Elena, exceptionally smart, is a timid, well-behaved child who loves the attention she gets from being good and smart. Lila is rebellious, sullen, and a trouble-maker. But Lila is brilliant. And determined. No one stands in Lila’s way.

Elena suffers from always being second best, or believing herself to be second. She spends her childhood and teenage years competing with her friend and finding herself pushed away and pulled back close. She has a lot of insight into her own psychology, perhaps because it is her older self telling the story, but she only ever catches glimpses of what Lila might be thinking. Yet these glimpses, and Lila’s actions, give us a picture of her that is as complex and sympathetic as the one Elena paints of herself.

I’m not sure what makes this novel as fascinating as it is, but I could not put it down. These characters are extraordinarily compelling, even if what they are doing is nothing earth-shattering. They are simply living their lives as best they can in difficult situations. Yet Ferrante is able to insert us into their stories so completely that we can feel what they are going through. We turn the pages looking for the small moments of happiness and it’s addictive because the promise of finding the key to a more permanent happiness is always there, but always just out of reach.

I’ll soon be reading the second book to see where life takes them next.

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