‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

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‘When you haven’t been in the world long, it’s hard to comprehend what disasters are at the origin of a sense of disaster: maybe you don’t even feel the need to’.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Pg.29

I have seen Elena Ferrante’s novels on a lot of blogs this year, particularly from people whose opinions I value a lot and whose reading tastes are quite often similar to my own. I also had an interesting encounter with the bookseller in Waterstones when I bought My Brilliant Friend as soon as I got back from Hong Kong. He said his manager recommended the Neapolitan novels to him and he couldn’t put them down. According to him they were addictive and impossible to read with anything else on the go and I would definitely be returning to purchase the following novels in the series. He was very confident about this fact and, after racing through the first two novels, I can safely say that he was completely right!

Although My Brilliant Friend was translated into, and published in, English around three years ago, this was the first year I ever heard of the writer, Elena Ferrante, and she is an intriguing and mysterious figure indeed. It turns out that “Elena Ferrante” isn’t actually her real name but a pen-name that she has used since her first publication in 1992 – ‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors’. She also minimises her contact with interviewers, preferring to partake only in written ones. It is from these that critics and readers alike have managed to grasp at certain bits of biographical information. She grew up in Naples, but has lived for extensive periods of time outside of Italy. She refers to herself as a ‘mother’, from which we can infer that she is a female writer. Aside from writing she studies, translates and teaches.

‘Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life’.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Pg.33

Heralded as the greatest and most important novelist of her generation, in My Brilliant Friend Ferrante focuses on the everyday life of a small, provincial town in Naples coming out of the devastation of the Second World War. Beginning in the present-day, the narrator of the story, also called Elena, receives a phone call from a man who claims that his mother has completely vanished. As she irritably tries to get him off the phone, she is suddenly drawn back into the past to when she was a young girl of six playing a game of ‘dare’ with her friend, Lila – the woman who has vanished in the present-tense of the novel. What entails is a beautifully honest and realistic account of a troubled friendship that has somehow endured the hardships of life.

‘As soon as I could I locked myself in the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, naked. I no longer knew who I was. I began to suspect that I would keep changing, until from me my mother would emerge, lame, with a crossed eye, and no one would love me anymore. I cried often, without warning. My chest, meanwhile, became large and soft. I felt at the mercy of obscure forces acting inside my body, I was always agitated’.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Pg.96

Almost bildungsroman-esque, we witness the intimately formative and coming-of-age years of Elena’s life and her friendship with the effortlessly intelligent and charismatic Lila, who doesn’t seem to put any effort into outshining her hard-working friend. Throughout their primary school years there is a constant  battle, though often healthy competition, between the two young girls. It is only when Elena is fortunate enough to take the Middle School examinations, whilst Lila is forced to leave school for the economic benefit of her family, that their lives begin to diverge along very different paths.

Although we witness the events through the first-person perspective of Elena, the story is not entirely restricted to her own story. In fact, she goes to great lengths to fill in events in Lila’s life that she was unable to witness personally. Throughout, there is an honest commentary on her often strained but loving relationship with Lila. She can see that her life is changing irrevocably from that of her friend, yet she is also jealous of these differences and wants to share in the same experiences, to have some common bond between them. She is helplessly drawn in, again and again, to the drama that surrounds Lila – a drama that is synonymous with the town they are from; dramas that recur again and again but with different faces at the centre.

‘…that New Year’s Eve [Lila] had perceived for the first time unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature. This had deeply shaken her’.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Pg.91

Yet Lila is no ordinary girl. She has a power to draw people in and build them up on a pedestal, to excite them with ideas they never knew they had before, but at the same time she knows how to rip them down to their bare bones – to nothing. She knows how to cause trouble and is fearless of the consequences. Yet this doesn’t stop her from ending up in a less than favourable situation; a situation in which there is no escape from. 

I am so glad I decided to read this book and for the blog reviews that brought it to my attention (ofBooks in particular). It has been such a long time since I devoured a book almost in one sitting and been impatient to read more and more. Elena Ferrante brings to life this small Neapolitan world with such vividness and realness that you cannot help but wonder about these characters after you turn the last page. It is, by far, one of the best and most engaging novels I have read in 2015.

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8 Replies to “‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante”

  1. Everything I’ve read about these books says how wonderful they are – which leaves me wondering a little while I’m not drawn to read them! Maybe I’ll get one out of the library and have a look!

    1. You should! I hope you will like them as much as I have. I guess you will see after the first one which isn’t very long or time consuming.

  2. This is my favourite book of the whole year (unless I read something magical in the next few weeks), it’s such a simple but powerful story – so utterly real.

    Even though Elena narrates, and we see Lila through her eyes, Lila is so much a part of Elena it would be impossible to know Elena without knowing Lila. It’s so painful (in a familiar way) how Lila will always be a step ahead of Elena, no matter how hard she tries. Carving out her own space in the world, Lila free, is near impossible. I just love this series so much.

    1. I think it is definitely one of my favourite reads of this year (alongside Ali Smith’s ‘How To Be Both’ and ‘There but for the’). It is such a simple, yet beautiful, premise for a story and even if we can’t relate to some of the events that happen in the story, there are so many universal human emotions that are explored in this series.

      I just received the final book in the post today and I am torn between wanting to start reading but not wanting it to end! I think 2016 will be my year of reading anything that Elena Ferrante has ever written!

    1. After finishing all four books now I think I am inclined to agree with you. There was something very special about ‘My Brilliant Friend’ that I don’t think was equalled in the other books, though I enjoyed reading all of them. This series really topped off my year of reading, I’m glad I discovered them too!

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