After years of hearing people recommend it, I finally got around to reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan novels. Ferrante has a bizarre cult following here in Melbourne and I thought it was high time I jumped aboard the hype train. On a somewhat related note, when did Ferrante become a thing? Was it this year? 2013? Whenever it was, we should have been talking about her sooner.
At its heart, this book tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between two childhood friends, Lila and Elena, as they navigate through adolescence and struggle to break free of the grinding cycle of poverty and isolation generated by the problems of the post-war, post-Fascist Italian state. The two girls live in a rough, violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, where money is hard to come by and opportunities for escape are scarce. Growing up on these tough streets, the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.
The best thing about this book is definitely the characters. The relationship between Elena and Lila is so incredibly fascinating, and both of the protagonists have so much depth and complexity. Their friendship is not an easy one – rather, it is fraught with tension and the two girls are in constant competition, although neither can truly succeed without the other. A friend once said to me that Ferrante ‘cuts to the bone’ and I couldn’t agree more. Acts of terrifying cruelty are balanced by offhand displays of extraordinary kindness to paint a mesmerising portrait of a friendship that is at the same time totally unique and extremely familiar.
I also really like that Ferrante takes almost every conventional literary device and narrative structure, flips it over, and spits it out again. She introduces way too many characters at random, inserts about five different ideas into a single sentence, and the story is not quite chronological. I think that these things would annoy me if anyone else did them, but I found myself admiring Ferrante’s audacity and creativity. Also, I think that Ann Goldstein deserves a big shout-out for her spectacular translation! Often, I think translated novels can sound a bit stilted, but this one reads wonderfully.
Overall, I thought that this book was beautifully-written, compelling, difficult to read at times, and absolutely brilliant. Will I read her other books? Hell yes. Especially after the very classy cliffhanger at the end of this one. Would I recommend this book to other people? Hell yes.
Have you ever read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels? What did you think? Would love to hear from you.