My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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Title: My Brilliant Friend
Author:
 Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein

Publisher:
 Europa Editions
Publication Date: 2014
Genre: 
fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, Italian literature

The Premise

From Goodreads:

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. 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 best 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 unforgettable Elena and Lila.

The Good

  • Female friendship in all its messy glory. Ferrante’s portrayal of the relationship between Elena and Lila feels raw and honest and true. There’s the almost obsessive love and fascination that is often at the core of some of the closest female friendships. There are also all of the jealouslies and slights; the petty, mean judgments; the desperate envy. And through it all is an enduring bond between two people who will always understand each other best.

  • The intellectual lives of women. It feels like most lady-centric fiction I read is primarily focused with the emotional lives of women. While Ferrante is certainly interested in Lila and Elena’s emotional lives, I cannot recall ever reading a book so interested in the intellectual lives of girls. Lila and Elena are both fiercely intelligent, and at the core of their relationship is an intellectual bond, a recognition that in each other, they have found their intellectual, if not equal, their intellectual foil. As their paths diverge in childhood and one girl’s gifts are (kind of) nurtured and the other’s are stifled, it is fascinating to watch the consequences for their lives.
  • A different side of Italy. If you’re expecting a gauzy, nostalgic Cinema Paradiso version of Italy, you will be sadly mistaken. Elena sets the record straight early on: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” This version of 1950s Naples is a gritty, violent, and dangerous place, especially for young girls. It’s also vibrant and evocative and brilliantly written.

  • That ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the last few pages are a heart-breaking gut-punch that had me running to the bookstore to get the next book.

The Bad

  • So many characters! With so many nicknames! It was hard to keep track of who was doing what to whom, which made it difficult to get into the story at first. Thankfully, there was a helpful index of characters at the start and after 100 pages or so, it got much easier to keep track of who was who.
  • Now this isn’t negative for me, but for some readers, I would imagine that there just isn’t enough happening here and the plot feels too meandering and . To those readers, I would respond “This is a coming-of-age story, the first of four volumes examining the lives of two women in all its messy, complicated details. This is never going to be your book if you want plot plot plot.”
  • It’s difficult to explain why this book is so good. This one is my fault, not the book’s, but it’s frustrating that I don’t know how to put words to my enthusiasm in a way that will sell the book to others.

The Verdict

4.5/5 stars. I’ve already started book 2. I know what I’ll be reading the next few weeks.

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