Review: My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels #1) by Elena Ferrante (Translated by Ann Goldstein)

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My Brilliant Friend did not grab me immediately. A time or two I came close to not continuing listening to it. The esoteric nature of the writing kept me at a distance. As a result I never formed an emotional attachment to the characters while over time, I became hooked on the story, wanting to know more, yet oddly glad when the novel ended. Ferrante’s style of writing is similar to that of male writers. My Brilliant Friend was a refreshing change, a break from recent emotionally-charged novels.

The premise of the novel is relatively simple. Set in Naples in the mid-20th century, the main character, Elena grow up in the shadow of her childhood friend Lila, for the most part living her life vicariously through Lila. Elena alternately wants to be free of Lila and to be like Lila, for Lila to approve of her. This state of being for Elena persists through the end. In one unexpected scene near the end, I believe cheapens the narrative, the obsessiveness transforms into voyeurism. That scene did not seemed to be Elena talking but the author.

My Brilliant Friend is Elena’s struggle to choose between the then-traditional role for women, domesticity and that of an unheard life of promise, enriched by her studies. It is also conversely the story of wistful thinking that at time borders on being mean spirited and envious by Lila of Elena and her choices. Lila’s choice not to take the middle school entrance exam ensures that her path is one of marriage, children and tending her husband’s grocery store—domesticity. The novel covers the girls’ formative years ending sixteen years later during Lila’s wedding reception. The differences between the girls and the reasons behind Lila’s choice of marriage to a wealthy son/inheritor of the neighborhood grocery store are the guts of the novel.

Along the way the reader meets Elena and Lila’s family. The families are roughly alike except for Elena’s father who understands, a bit come lately and with considerable reluctance, that Elena’s education should be fostered. Lila and her family figure prominently in the narrative. She is the future of her family—a good marriage to a boy with money is the family’s purpose. In the prologue, which is written as it supposed to be (e.g. featuring a scene that appears to have nothing to do with the story that follows afterwards), Reno is introduced as Lila’s no account older Her father like most is portrayed as heavy-handed with the children and his mostly submissive wife. Neighborhood toughs, modeled after low ranking Sicilian mob soldiers, working class somewhat literate youths, teachers, a married philandering poet, his avenging wife and angry brilliant son, the poet’s castigated lover and her defender son, and a presumed Fascist/Nazi collaborator and his family round out to a large degree the rest of the characters.

A recurrent theme is the poor relation or the red headed stepchild. Naples is dirty, poverty-stricken, rough in contrast to nearby affluent areas. Other examples: a girl from the outside all dolled up in her green dress and her companion in his expensive outfit compared to Elena, Lila, and her friends in their worn and threadbare clothes, the middle and high school Elena attends being deemed not as good as those in other neighborhoods, Lila’s relatives and friends waiting to be served at the reception while the groom’s side begin their first course and are served the best wines, the shoe store in town refusing to sell the shoes designed by Lila and made in the family’s cobbler shop and Lila’s tormentor waltzing in the middle of the reception.

Another theme is the past continuing to live on, exacting tolls, haunting future generations. When do the crimes and wrongs stop being visited on later generations? When does it become revenge? Lawlessness for the sake of remembering?

My Brilliant Friends deals with all of the above, and more, some in exacting detail, though mostly leaving unanswered questions ending as the narrative does. There are three more in the series. Will there be answers?

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