My Brilliant Friend…
Translated by Ann Goldstein
About the Book:
My Brilliant Friend is the gripping first volume in Elena Ferrante’s widely acclaimed Neapolitan Novels. This exquisitely written quartet creates an unsentimental portrait of female experience, rivalry and friendship never before seen in literature.
The story of Elena and Lila begins in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. They learn to rely on each other and discover that their destinies are bound up in the intensity of their relationship.
Elena Ferrante’s piercingly honest portrait of two girls’ path into womanhood is also the story of a nation and a meditation on the nature of friendship itself.
My Brilliant Friend is a modern masterpiece, the work of one of Italy’s great storytellers.
I’m very late to the party on this one, although I have had a copy of this on my eBook shelf for a few years after reading an article on the series, I think, before the fourth book came out. Anyway, better late than never! As is my way of late, I’ve taken to watching before reading – I know! The horror, breaking the golden reading rule. I find though that this avoids that whole ‘it wasn’t as good as the book’ mentality. If it’s good to watch, it’ll be even better to read (usually) and pretty much so far this has been working out for me. So, I watched My Brilliant Friend (over two days) and as far as a TV series goes, that gets five stars. It was exceptional and I loved that it was Italian. I picked up the book straight away and read it in a day (very, very late into the night). I was immediately struck by how the TV series was almost exactly like the book, with a few chronological exceptions, and that hardly ever happens. Ferrante was one of the writers and maybe in Italy you have more say over what happens when your book is adapted than in America, Australia or the UK. Or maybe it’s just a perfect story that needed no extra handling. The emotional intensity of the story translated well onto the screen and the faithfulness to the novel must surely be a bonus to all fans. At least we don’t have to do a book versus the show comparison now. Moving right on.
I wish I could read Italian. The translation is excellent, don’t get me wrong, but when it came to the dialogue, I have this feeling that it would have had a whole other layer of emotional depth in its original Italian. This was evidenced within the show. At times, you could imagine that if people had been shouting those same words in English, the effect would not have been the same. But this is a minor quibble, thank goodness for the translation, allowing the rest of the world outside of Italy to enjoy this wonderful novel.
Elena Ferrante is some writer. This is more than a novel about friendship. The era in which she set the story plays just as much of a role in the telling as the characters. Italy’s turbulent history is evidenced within the very fabric of these characters, the community, and the codes they lived by. My Brilliant Friend is a coming of age novel not just for two girls, but for a nation, who had, in a relatively short amount of time, experienced extreme political turbulence under multiple political regimes, civil war, and two world wars. The characters wear this, they struggle with it, the younger generation want to break free from the fear and ways of the older generation. I absolutely love novels that explore society at such an intimate level like this. And it’s a tough read, at times. The normalised violence is shocking, particularly against children. The oppression is all encompassing, the lack of agency over ones own life, not just women and children, but men too. This is a community run by the Camorra, which is not fictional. It’s an Italian Mafia-type crime syndicate which arose in the region of Campania and its capital Naples and is one of the oldest and largest criminal organizations in Italy, dating back to the 17th century. The stranglehold the Solara family, and the Carracci family before them, had on the community was no exaggeration. The way Ferrante articulated that intergenerational fear was so telling in how a community can remain in a cycle of oppression and forced compliance. This was demonstrated over and over throughout the novel but perhaps the most powerful symbol of it was evidenced in that ending: the inevitable appearance at the wedding of the unwanted guest and those shoes, a forceful statement of exactly where and with whom the power lies. For a sociologist with a long-term interest in Italy’s history, this novel is a gold class case study.
Now, let’s talk about that friendship. While I was watching the show, I thought I just didn’t like the actress playing the teenaged Elena, but having now read the book, I realise that the actress was playing her role to perfection. It’s Elena I don’t like. For such a smart young woman, she is almost entirely devoid of emotional intelligence. She misreads every situation and ascribes her own bitter discontent onto all those around her. She is of course the product of her mother’s fears and anger, manifested into a childhood anxiety that grips her and increases in severity throughout her teenage years, again, demonstrating to us how cycles are perpetuated, Elena’s fractured only by the tenacity of a teacher not willing to see another woman wasted. But it’s in Elena’s friendship with Lila that I liked her the least. She was, I felt, disingenuous, too slated with envy and suspicion, unable to love without it always being tinged with hate. I tired of her, particularly as they got older and maturity should have been setting in. Elena was entirely incapable of considering any part of her life separate from Lila, but in a toxic comparative way. Did Ferrante miss the beat with Elena and overplay the whining and apathy? I don’t think so. We all know Lila should have had the educational opportunities that Elena received, but while Elena’s father had a job as a porter at the city hall, Lila’s was a struggling shoe maker. Neither family had much money but the job held by Elena’s father meant that he saw education in action on a daily basis, whereas for Lila’s father, it was unnecessary, an unwanted expense and a possible danger to the order of his household. Much like Elena’s mother’s view, but she was overruled by her husband. Lila, unable to go to school, taught herself. I don’t believe, if the situations were reversed, that Elena would have done that. Elena’s inferiority complex was too great and she’d never have had the will to overcome her anxieties and apply herself under her own steam. She was too much about the external gratification. It was in this jealous way that Elena begrudged Lila her independent learning and intelligence that Elena was at her worst. I hope Elena grows in maturity and emotional complexity over the next three books.
I adored Lila. She was ferocious, her own woman, trying her hardest within the limited confines of her life to go her own way. Marcello’s interest in her was frightening. I do believe he loved her, obsessively though. I don’t believe that she escaped his interest by marrying another man. In a society driven by retribution, she humiliated him too much for that, hence, the ending and that bold statement made by Marcello. Lila’s beauty came not only from her looks but from the fire within her, that dangerous mix that Alfonso pointed out to Elena. I feared for Lila for the entirety of the novel, and if it wasn’t for the fact that the beginning of the story introduces both of the women in their sixties, I felt certain on many occasions that Lila walked a fine line between life and death.
No story that rests on the shoulders of a community can exist without the creation of a colourful community. I loved the vast cast of characters within this story and I thought Ferrante distinguished each person enough for her readers to not lose track of who was who. There was a helpful cast list in the front of the book but I didn’t need to refer to it once I’d started. I think out of everyone, my favourite was Maestra Oliviero, a woman who was tirelessly teaching the girls at the elementary level in the hopes that she might rescue, through education, at least one of them and set them free from their plebeian existence. I haven’t mentioned Donato Sarratore and his presence within Melina’s life and later Elena’s. What a snake. I saw the writing on that wall right from the get go. I don’t think his son, Nino, was quite worth the mental and emotional energy Elena expended on him. I feel that he was a young man who closed himself off long ago as a precautionary measure against his father’s repeated misconduct. A complex young man, but devoid of any real emotional capability. Elena alludes to Lila’s panic attacks (not that they were called that back then) and Rino’s bouts of depression that would lead to sleep walking. We see through these conditions, as well as Melina’s mental illness, how people struggled, reliant on empathy and the protection of those around them. With Melina in particular, the community protected her, shielded her, did everything they could to keep her free of an asylum. This community had many characteristics defining it, but not all of them were negative, not by a long shot.
My Brilliant Friend is a five-star read for me, not just for the story and characters, but also for the thought provoking nature of the text. It’s a stimulating and lively novel and I could see at a glance on Goodreads that it’s one of those love it or hate it novels. This reader loved it and I highly recommend the TV series as well.
About the Author:
Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is the author of seven novels: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, and the quartet of Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. She is one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors.
My Brilliant Friend trailer:
My Brilliant Friend
Published by Text Publishing October 2011