I commonly frequent the offers tables at the front of bookshops – where there tend to be a mix of new releases and featured classics – which for whatever reason are thought to be likely to sell well.
Having seen ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ and ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ (books three and four, respectively, in this series) on these tables for a few months, I think I had subconsciously dismissed them. I have to admit it – I can be a bit of a book snob. And the covers for these books instantly registered in my mind as Chick-Lit, a genre I generally avoid. You know the ones I mean – beach fodder, filled with cute-meets at cupcake shops or idyllic country cottages, with frustratingly one-dimensional characters wishing they could just find the perfect man. I’m still not a fan of the cover-art on My Brilliant Friend – depicting a couple in wedding outfits with a scenic Naples in the backdrop – despite having read and very much enjoyed it. Anyway, I had largely skimmed across these covers and not given them much thought. (Maybe I should heed the whole ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ thing, but don’t we all?)
It was actually following the recent ‘revelation’ of the apparent true identity of Elena Ferrante (a literary mystery of 20+ years) that my ears perked up and I looked into My Brilliant Friend, the first of four books known collectively as the Neapolitan Novels. Now, I don’t particularly want to get into the ethics of revealing the true identity of someone who has chosen to remain anonymous. If you’re interested, a quick internet search will bring up an array of articles on the revelation, and many people’s opinions. Ferrante is quoted as saying, early in her career:
“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”
I have to say that I largely agree with this sentiment. Though I can appreciate the irony of all the press coverage of the author’s identity being what led me to actually read this book! A full discussion on an author’s right to remain anonymous can remain a topic for another day…
My Brilliant Friend is set in 1950s Naples – in a poorer area of the city referred to throughout the book as “the neighbourhood”. The story is told from the first person perspective of Elena Greco, and centres on her friendship with the precocious and vibrant Lila Cerullo, throughout their childhood and adolescence. The book is largely character- rather than plot-driven, though the progression of Elena through different stages of schooling provides a natural timeline in which to frame much of the story.
The two girls meet initially at primary school, where Elena first notices Lila because she is badly behaved. Used to being the top of the class, Elena is overtaken in the teachers’ favour when it is discovered that Lila taught herself to read at the age of three and can do more complex arithmetic in her head than children in higher grades. It is from this point that Elena decides, almost without realising it, that Lila is the yardstick against which she will always measure herself. The two girls become friends, and challenge each other, discussing how they will earn lots of money when they are older. It appears that they may be able to distinguish themselves from the poverty and violence of the neighbourhood, through their education. A teacher encourages both to continue onto middle school – though they will need additional tuition to make the transition. Reluctantly, Elena’s parents agree to pay for it. Lila’s do not. Lila begins to help out in the house and at the family shoe shop.
One of my favourite things about My Brilliant Friend is the portrayal of both the unconditional love and solidarity inherent to children’s friendships, alongside the sometimes quietly nasty interactions between young girls. As the girls get older, Lila seems to try and stay one step ahead of Elena, secretly teaching herself Latin and borrowing books from the local library. Elena becomes self-conscious as a teenager, worrying about her appearance whilst aware of Lila’s growing influence over the boys of the neighbourhood, with both her beauty and distinctive attitude.
The novel deals variously with misogyny, poverty and the political situation of Naples in the 1950s, as observed through Elena. Ferrante brilliantly captures the slow realisation of all of these, and more, as Elena also comes to realise that through her education she may have a different perspective than many of the extensive set of characters in the neighbourhood.
Throughout the book, the reader can start to feel this gap between Elena and her community. This is wonderfully and delicately handled by the subtleties in the friendship between Elena and Lila. Just as Elena is exposed to clever and liberal-minded characters external to the neighbourhood, so do we feel her reluctance to see anything remiss in Lila’s actions. Lila, who for all her ambition and daring in her childhood, appears suddenly consumed by the neighbourhood. Lila, who Elena has always been captivated by, and whose life now seems to be diverging from hers.
I don’t want to go any further with the plot. This book is a fascinating character study of a friendship, in times of social and political change. The prose is simple and straightforward, making it very easy to read. As the plot is reasonably slow-burning, the characters are built up with a lot of complexity which I personally loved. The characters are not necessarily always likeable – which I think adds to the book. You may not always agree with a characters choices or even their motivations, but they are all laid out in meticulous detail by Ferrante. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. I am looking forward to getting a copy of The Story of a New Name, the next in the series!
If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on My Brilliant Friend, or the rest of the series. What else are you reading? My next review will be A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness 🙂