My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was seduced by scenes of Italy in sunshine and by the endless smiles of Richard E Grant on the BBC programme Write around the World. I think it should have been Read around Europe. I was seduced into giving My Brilliant Friend a second chance. Seeing the streets of Naples in the sun and the tunnel through which the girls try to escape and find the sea, seeing all that made me suspect I had missed something first time round when I read My Brilliant Friend back in 2015. My response to that first reading had not been very favourable and I had not continued with the Neapolitan Quartet.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s. The novel is narrated by Elena, written many decades later. She is known familiarly as Lenu. She describes Lila, from the outset as mean, selfish and very spirited. She is also clever, and she and Lenú are connected from their first days in school. Everything in school seems to come easily to Lila, and Lenú looks up to her, sees her as her reference point. Their relationship is defined by their surroundings, including their families and the traditions of the neighbourhood and by their gender.

All the children in the neighbourhood are controlled through violence, and through a strong sense of hierarchy of the families. Lila’s father is a shoe repairer while Lenú’s is a porter in the city hall. Poverty is everywhere in post-war Italy. The novel is set against the background of the gradual economic improvement of the time.

The girls try to look beyond the neighbourhood, to speak in Italian as well as dialect, to learn Latin and Greek. Both hope for wealth and fame, at first through writing a novel together, and later they become more realistic: Lenu studies hard and successfully although there is little admiration for her success from her family or the neighbourhood. Lila takes her own path, giving up on school and eventually settling for the wealthy Stefano who appears to want to change the rules of the neighbourhood, to escape the domination of the Solara family.

We see the two girls growing apart. Lenú can see that Lila is imprisoned by the district, limited by it, defined by it. Lenú sees a life beyond for herself. Indeed, the novels in the quartet are framed to show that in her 60s Lila has erased herself, while Elena is living comfortably in Turin. 

So, this novel and the three novels that follow make up the Neapolitan Quartet and they have been very successful since they appeared in translation in 2012. Readers recommended them to each other and got lost in the unfolding story. Novelists of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Zadie Smith extol their virtues. 

I have wondered what the fuss is about. It was only when I came to the final scene, the wedding, that I understood what the detail of their lives had been building up to. It was hard work for not much gain. I suspect that the attraction is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

It is a dense novel, and evocative of both its time and place. But even on a second reading I am not tempted to continue with the quartet. I would love to know what people have enjoyed about it to make it so successful. I am not alone in finding that My Brilliant Friend failed to live up to its reputation.

Who is Elena Ferrante?

And there is mystery surrounding the author. She has demanded anonymity and does not engage in speculation about her identity. Is this a publicity stunt? Of course, several people have taken it upon themselves to identify the writer, claiming a translator, and a professor and a male writer. 

I can’t think that it matters who Elena Ferrante is. I am reminded of the old joke about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It is claimed that it was another writer of the same name.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein


Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Travel with Books, Women in Translation

12 Responses to My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

  1. Jennifer

    I’m one of those who loved and extolled the books. I found them rich in detail and evocative of my own childhood in the decade after the end of WW2. The books explored the tension that many working class people between wanting to learn and achieve through education and fear of leaving their familiar surroundings. There is also an exploration of the dilemmas women face when trying to break out of the cages men have made for them. This is explored more fully in the later books. I would recommend that you read on Caroline. There’s much richness to be found in following the story to its conclusion.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this encouragement, Jennifer. I agree that she exposes the difficulties for women in My Brilliant Friend, enforced through violence and traditional expectations accepted in the neighbourhood. I respect you views on books so I guess that one day I will have to carry on. May be in a year or so!
      Thanks for prolonging our conversation of yesterday in this comment.

  2. I must admit, I’ve never felt the need to read this – your analogy of a soap opera rings true from what I know of the plot – and the hype actually puts me off!!!

  3. Carole Jones

    Thanks for this Caroline. I too agree with the ‘soap opera’ feel and gave up on vol 1 part-way through. I only lasted that far, as friends were raving about it, and I was trying to work out ‘why?’ . Mainly I found it too ‘told’ – to the extent that it seemed like the ‘livened up’ version of ‘lives known’. I also found it too easy: something to be gulped before hurrying on to the next book: very much a ‘what happens’ book, which on the whole, I hate. I prefer works where you work out what is going on – and why and how; or where characters have to be fathomed. I did appreciate the views into these particular, but various, Italian working-class lives, but overall found it: soapy, a little prurient, and overtold rather than discovered.

    • Caroline

      Hi Carole. Thanks for this contribution to the comments. Personally I did not find it an easy read, partly because it was hard to keep the family relationships in mind for each of the many characters, even despite the cast list. But I agree that the reader was carried along by the story. It seems that this is a book that divides opinion.

      • Carole Jones

        Hi Caroline,
        I do agree about the all the character, family-links and names issues. I think it was with the first volume of this series, that I ever noticed this issue … except that it is a style that more writers seem to be using as I get older ! I have no idea why authors like this form. However, the older members of my Reading Group (Kingsbridge Library) say that it has been going on for much longer than I’d realised! (Tongue firmly in cheek. It is so frustrating!!!)

        • Caroline

          Hi again Carole, I seem to remember that some of the Russian classics have long lists of characters, which is necessary because of their unfamiliar naming system. Was it War and Peace I remember with the long cast of characters?
          I don’t object to the presence of lots of characters, but I am not very good at keeping track, having to make notes or refer to the list all the time is not my idea of pleasant reading. Maybe I just need to slow down.

  4. I wasn’t taken by the hype but, when offered The Lying Lives of Adults last year, I seized my opportunity to see what the fuss is about with this author. Although I can’t remember much about it, it seems similar to the one you’ve reviewed here and I really wasn’t particularly impressed.

  5. Sorry to be late in commenting. I read this book because of the hype, I didnt want to feel left out! I managed to read the book through to the end but wasnt really inspired and dont intend to read the other three.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the comment – it’s never too late!
      I am interested in how many readers have had the same experience as you describe. Me too, and I did it twice!

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