My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

I read this book few weeks ago and I don’t remember all the plot details clearly, but it is one of those books where plot is secondary to characters development. Still a lot of things happen!

It is a first book in a series of four, Neapolitan Novels, as they came to be called. The series tells the story of friendship of Lila and Lenu, Lenu is our narrator. The first book starts when Lenu, in her sixties, is called by Lila’s son, who tells her Lila vanished. Lenu’s first idea is to dismiss it, as it’s not unlike Lila to disappear for few days, but after talking with Lila’s son she starts thinking about her friend and tries to remember what she has that reminds her of Lila.

I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff, especially anything that had to do with her, and she knows it. I discovered that I have nothing of hers, not a picture, not a note, not a little gift. I was surprised myself. Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or, worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.

This already shows us their bond is not typical close friendship, where friends are always in touch, it is a different kind of bond. Nonetheless Lenu knows Lila well and she suspects Lila decided to finally realize her lifelong dream of vanishing.

She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she left behind.

To prove Lila wrong and to prove that she cannot erase a life that involved other people and relationships, especially the one they had, Lenu starts writing down the story of their friendship. This is when we jump to the beginnings.

The first book in the series focuses on their childhood and adolescence. Starting with how they met, going through how their bond grew, and how events in their life affected their relation. The story is told from Lenu’s perspective, we can see how she starts seeing and judging herself always in comparison to Lila, who is smart, quick to learn, excels in everything she focuses on. We see how Lenu is inspired by Lila, challenged to prove that she is better, how they compete on all levels, but also how their relation is necessary to Lenu, to push her, to keep her motivated, otherwise:

I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions.

Lenu wants to be someone special for Lila, the only one that can understand her, how she wants to be the one Lila feels the need to talk to. Lenu wants Lila to need her in the same way as she needs Lila.

“But it’s good to talk to other people,” I murmured.
“Yes, but only if when you talk there’s someone who answers.”

It is obvious that Lenu becomes very dependent on Lila, on what she thinks, what she does, how their lives compare. On one hand Lenu always competes, on the other, on some level she knows there is nothing to compare, because they are different, yet she always feels worse, even when she fights to be able to see and lead her life independently of Lila she always ends up being pulled back.

I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was and old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.

It is a relationship full of pulling in and pushing away. Lenu sees that Lila is far from perfect, but she craves her energy, her conviction, her passion for life; at the same time she sees that Lila manipulates people easily and often for fun or out of cruelty.

It seemed to me – articulated in the words of today – that not only did she know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.

Lila was malicious: this, in some secret place in myself, I still thought. She had shown me not only that she knew how to wound with words but that she would kill without hesitation, and yet those capacities now seemed to me of little importance. I said to myself: she will release something more vicious, and I resorted to the word “evil”, an exaggerated word that came to me from childhood tales. But if it was a childish self that unleashed the thoughts in me, they had a foundation of truth. And in fact, it slowly became clear not only to me, who had been observing her since elementary school, but to everyone, that an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila.

Their relationship is fascinating, but the book is also about the environment in which it develops and it is not a pretty one. I read it before going to Naples in hope of getting in the mood, but the first book takes place solely in the poor neighbourhood where girls were raised.

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.

Blood. In general it came from wounds only after horrible curses and disgusting obscenities have been exchanged. That was the standard procedure.

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.

The environment is brutal, violence is so common no one notices it anymore, gradually we see influence of politics, history, crime pervading the ways in which people think and interact. The world in which the girls grow up is a confined one, with clearly defined roles for everyone and going against those roles is not received well.

The language is beautiful like a fruit that ripened in the sun, it naturally adapts to the situations, the English translation is fantastic.

My only complain is that the covers for the entire series are horrible, I really hate them and if I haven’t heard about those books before I’d never buy them (yes, I judge books by the covers).

I honestly recommend this book, it draws you into another world, a world where a difficult friendship can happen and last against all odds and against the culture that is hostile to women, children, strangers and pretty much everyone who doesn’t have power.

If you read it, what aspect of the story did you find interesting?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

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9 thoughts on “My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

  1. Sarah

    I read this last year, and reading your review has reminded me that I need to crack on with the next in the series. I really loved the honesty of Ferrante’s depiction of friendship as a relationship that can be built on rivalry, competition and jealousy as often as genuine warmth. It was so refreshing. Also, the sudden flashes of emotion that pepper the book brought a heady sense of danger and drama. It all made for a very exciting read.

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    1. After reading the second book I needed a break, but I just started the third book and the language instantly draws me back into the specific mood of Ferrante’s novels, tender and cruel at the same time.

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    1. Hahaha, I don’t know why they were done like this in the first place. Maybe it was an experiment, someone thinking ‘let’s make some awful covers for a really good series and see how many people we can discourage’ 😉

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  2. I’m definitely looking forward to reading these books sometime – they are getting so much love! I agree, though, that I would never have read them based on the covers. 🙂

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  3. Pingback: March round-up – bookskeptic.com

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