I paid my 40 pence and waited in what felt like an endless holds queue to get my hands on a public library copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. For months I’d been eager to try out this literary phenomenon in translation. I read about the first 100 pages and then my interest started to tail off. Aware of the impending due date, I skimmed the rest – so this doesn’t count towards my year’s reading list.
What went wrong? I didn’t dislike the book; in fact, I found it to be an accomplished psychological study of a female friendship and how it changes over time. Yet there were some factors that kept me at a distance. I’ll give a quick synopsis before listing pros and cons.
Elena, in her sixties, gets a call from the son of her childhood best friend, Lila. His mother and all her possessions have vanished from her home. Elena recalls Lila’s longtime desire to disappear without a trace, and decides she won’t let her: she sits down to her computer to write the story of their friendship, a bulwark against failing memory and deliberate sabotage.
From here Elena, a novelist in her own right (often assumed to be an autobiographical stand-in for Ferrante), returns to the girls’ childhood in 1940s and 1950s Naples, a place of organized crime, domestic violence, and what seems like surprising social backwardness. Neapolitan dialect contrasts with educated Italian. Lila and Elena have a low-key academic rivalry until Lila has to quit school to help her father, a shoemaker. Even then Lila finds ways to show her friend up, maxing out her whole family’s library cards and learning Latin and Greek on her own time. Lila is always one step ahead of Elena, whether in her studies or in attracting boys’ attention. This volume concludes with Lila’s wedding at the age of 16.
What I Loved:
- The psychological acuity Ferrante brings to the relationship between Elena and Lila. Their friendship has a shifting dynamic, vacillating between jealousy and support as they move from childhood through puberty. The novel powerfully captures Elena’s hesitation and Lila’s brazenness, often in piercing one-liners:
she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.
In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, like a salted anchovy, she gave off an odor of wildness
Lila acted … on me like a demanding ghost
only what Lila touched became important.
- The choice between education and a trade. Money and class have a lot to do with it, but both girls long for a Woolfian “room of one’s own” and even talk of writing novels together one day. Although Lila finds fulfillment designing shoes, it’s plain she envies Elena’s chance to complete high school. “My brilliant friend” is what Lila calls Elena late on in the novel, but it’s what Elena has always thought of Lila too.
- The Naples setting: Don Achille’s murder; setting off fireworks on New Year’s; the sense that the community is on the up and up when someone they know publishes a book. A few of my favorite lines describe the girls’ neighborhood:
We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed toward the Carraccis and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets.
What I Struggled with:
- A lack of context. Footnotes would have been intrusive, but perhaps a short introduction from the translator or an English-language critic could have helped set the scene and given some sociological details that would aid in my understanding of mid-twentieth-century Italy. Even just within the first chapter of Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson, a memoir I’m currently reading, there’s more basic information about Italy to help orient foreigners.
- The confusing names. The central characters are known by multiple names – for example, Lila’s full name is Raffaella Cerullo – and nicknames aren’t always intuitive; it reminded me of the variations in War & Peace. Thank goodness for the three-page index of characters.
- Short shrift given to Elena’s odd relationship with her mother. I felt there was a lot more that could have been explored. Perhaps that is a matter for another volume.
- Repetition in the day to day, especially regarding Elena’s schooling. I wondered whether all four, or at least two, of the books might have been condensed into one 400-page novel.
- Minor punctuation and translation issues. I only marked out one passage that sounded false to my ear (“I’ve kept a place for you.” / “Go away, my mother has understood everything.”), but the punctuation drove me a little nutty. I dislike lots of phrases being strung together with commas – as in the anchovy sentence above; I always look for a semicolon!
In general, I avoid series fiction. I hate being saddled with a sense of obligation, and I don’t like feeling that a story is unfinished. That doesn’t mean a book’s last pages can’t be open-ended, but I’d prefer to imagine my own future for the characters rather than have to read about it in another book or three or 14. While I seriously doubt I will pick up another of the Neapolitan novels, I could possibly be persuaded to pick up one of her stand-alone novellas. Naomi at Consumed by Ink wrote a very appealing review of The Lost Daughter, for instance. Although this long-awaited literary experiment was a touch disappointing, I’m still eager to try another model of “autofiction” in translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Further reading: Meghan O’Rourke’s 2014 Guardian article about Elena Ferrante’s growing popularity and mysterious persona.