From book blurbs, I always understood, simply, that My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante was a story of a friendship between two young girls in Naples, Italy. That sounds so…benign; this is a story with so much more than the joy, camaraderie, possible girl power suggested by such bland blurbs. The friendship between the narrator, Elena, and Lina (or Lila as Elena refers to her) is a thing of Shakespearean complexity and scope. Right from the get-go we know this no sweet childhood story; the grown Elena gets a call from Lina’s son that his mother has disappeared — utterly disappeared along with every scrap of her material possessions. Surprisingly, Elena is neither surprised nor concerned. Instead, she begins to explain by narrating the childhood beginnings of their friendship.
I mentioned Shakespeare earlier. It’s probably not original to say that the novel harkens the bard—or more generally, the theater. (I first thought of West Side Story, and then its source). The neighborhood that Elena and Lina grow up in is populated by family groups: the Cerullos, the shoemaker’s family (and Lina’s); the Grecos (Elena’s), the porter’s family; the Sarratores, the railroad worker poet’s family; and so on. The day-to-day lives of these working class families are fraught with rivalries and divided loyalties. Such clannishness reminded me of the Montagues and Capulets. It’s a patriarchal world where no one is very educated or cosmopolitan. There is a suggestion that most never leave this small enclave in the bigger city. Social interaction seems to center around petty disputes and coarse rivalries. You would not be surprised if the young Neapolitan men began sword fighting in the square.
Elena and Lina come of age in this environment. As our narrator, Elena marvels at and emulates the enigmatic and academically gifted Lina. She tries so hard to study and write as well as her friend that she ends up succeeding well enough to enter middle school, something that is a rarity in the neighborhood. Lina’s parents will not allow her to continue her studies, so despite her promise and brilliance, she enters the working class world of domestic chores and helping out the family business. At first, Lina continues a voracious pace of self-study and by doing so, helps Elena to succeed in school. Lina also tries to innovate in her family business, but her father is adamantly discouraging. As Lina grows older, she seems to lose purpose (hope, perhaps) and seems to accept her social place in the neighborhood. When Elena moves on to high school and gets the highest marks ever, Lina refers to her as “my brilliant friend,” but we also know that Lina is Elena’s equally, if not more brilliant friend.
My summary here suggests that Lina and Elena are always tight in their friendship. However, they seems to operate at a distance from each other, and Elena often perceives a sort of mysterious rivalry from Lina. She doubts her own value and exalts Lina’s beauty, cleverness, and intelligence over her own. It’s a very nuanced portrait of a friendship, and what makes the novel so fascinating and worth reading. I guess, but I don’t know, that women will find their friendship more relatable than men. The author has a way of capturing and describing the complexity of women’s relationships that rings true, even if the particular economic and social circumstances of the relationships are different.
For a good while, I was not sure that I understood what all the hoopla was about this book. By the time I finished, I was certain that I will read the sequels (known as the Neapolitan Novels) that continue the story of their friendship and lives. After all I need to find out: where did Lina, who never left the neighborhood, go and why?
Copyright 2011 by Edizioni E/O
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
Translation by Anna Goldstein