My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I feel like I’m a bit late to the party with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’ve decided to more intentional about reading literature which prioritises friendship; The Little Prince was an obvious place to start, particularly since I had been meaning to read it since I was a child. However, as I was researching other literature on this subject, Ferrante’s name kept coming up again and again as one of the most recommended depictions of friendship. I bought My Brilliant Friend on an impulse, because I have very little self-restraint in bookshops, and I am so glad that I did. This was a fantastic novel that had me thoroughly engrossed from start to finish, and I have already put the rest of the series down on my wish list.
My Brilliant Friend is the first in the Neapolitan Novels and tells the story of childhood friends Elena and Lila as they navigate life in a neighbourhood full of violence. The novel is written from Elena’s point of view as she describes how she first came to be friends with Lila, and the strain their friendship faces as they head down very different paths. Despite some reluctance from her parents, Elena is given an opportunity to continue her education which is denied to Lila; always the brighter of the two, Lila’s jealousy of Elena’s schooling is the driving force behind much of her behaviour. Elena is also jealous: of Lila’s personality and life experiences. Yet, through all the tensions that come with childhood and teenage friendship, it is clear that Elena and Lila care deeply about each other. When Lila described Elena as ‘my brilliant friend’ (p.312), encouraging her to keep studying, I have to admit that I teared up a bit: in many ways, Elena is carrying the hopes of both of them in her studies.
Although there is a vast array of characters within the novel (so many that Ferrante has to include a list at the beginning), these secondary characters mainly serve to show how consuming this friendship is for both Elena and Lila. They are absorbed in their own little world, allowing other characters to join them for brief periods, but ultimately it seems it will always be the friendship that will prevail. Yet all of these secondary characters feel completely fleshed out, as though Ferrante could have written a series of novels about any one of this neighbourhood and their backstory. Elena and Lila may not always understand what is happening in the lives of those around them, but it is very clear that Ferrante knows exactly what is going on behind the closed doors in this neighbourhood, and I look forward to seeing more about some of these characters in the subsequent novels in the series.
My Brilliant Friend is definitely one of the most beautifully written novels I have read this year. Considering that Ferrante is depicting a dangerous neighbourhood, the way she writes strikes an incredible balance of the complicated thought-life of Elena and the violent reality of the place in which she lives. One thing I particularly loved was how Ferrante takes small objects and makes them come to represent things which are so much more: the shoes Lila makes with her brother come to represent her longing for freedom; the story she writes comes to represent the child-Lila, before she realised she would never get the education she wanted; the letter Elena receives from Lila on holiday, with undertones of the childhood story, comes to represent the difference between Lila as a child and Lila as a teenager, struggling against her family to have any semblance of control over her life. Yet Ferrante never tells the reader this, instead allowing the objects to become recurring themes in Elena and Lila’s lives, growing in importance as Elena looks back with hindsight on her childhood. It is a wonderful showcase of showing and not telling.
I feel as though I’m repeating myself, but this was a really great read: a brilliantly engaging novel which had me invested in Elena and Lila’s friendship right from the start. I am really excited to read the rest of the series, especially since My Brilliant Friend ended on a minor cliff-hanger. I doubt I will be able to wait very long before I cave and buy the next one. If you, like me, had never heard of the Neapolitan Novels before, I would definitely encourage you to have a read; My Brilliant Friend is a great introductory novel for the series, clearly establishing the characters without relying on exposition. I would recommend this novel whole-heartedly.