Boswell and Books: "And while the neighborhood can be eccentrically charming, it's also claustrophobic and dangerous."
Date: Aug 14 2015
There are lots of reasons why I pick books for the in-store lit group. Sometimes we have an event coming up and I want to read the author's book and also encourage others, like our August 31st selection of Richard Ford's Canada. Sometimes I already own the book and it keeps staring at me on the bookshelf, whispering "Read me, already." And other times I walk through the store or run a report in an attempt to find something interesting and different, and that's how I chose for October 5.
But when it comes to our most recent book topic, My Brilliant Friend, it was classic word of mouth. It was one of those books that customers would start talking about at the front register, and be so passionate about the series, now numbering three books. Or maybe I still recalled the James Wood profile in The New Yorker some two years ago. Profile's a bit of an odd word because Elena Ferrante the author hasn't been spotted. Her publisher, E/O (the Italian parent company of her American publisher Europa) received her first manuscript, L'Amore Molesto (Troubling Love) and published it in 1992 with the specific notes that she would not appear in public, not even to accept awards.
Her second novel ten years later, I giorni dell'abbandono, was the first book published in the United States as Days of Abandonment, and before this series, was her best known work to date.
And while some of her other books have taken a long time to come out Stateside (we note that the fact that all of an Italian writer's work would be translated and published here is an amazing feat in itself), the Neopolitan Novel cycle (originally said to be a trilogy, but as of now a quartet) is translated with some speed by Ann Goldstein. The fourth novel, The Story of a Lost Child, comes out September 1.
Knowledgeable readers will already know the story. It's told from the perspective of Elena Greco, who is also called Lenú, growing up in a rather poor neighborhood of Naples as the daughter of a porter. Her friend Rafaella Cerullo, also known as Lina and sometimes Lila, is from a family of shoemakers. Yes, at one point I got a little irritated with the War-and-Peace like multiple names for characters. In primary school they are more competitive than anything else, but as their fates start to diverge (Elena's parents pay for middle school and Lina's do not), they become more intricately bound, as Lina continues to read and study and help Elena.
But there are other pressures on the two girls--violent, sexual, economic. And while the neighborhood can be eccentrically charming, it's also claustrophobic and dangerous. At one point when Elena is sent away for the summer, it seems like she's on an exotic island in another country, whereas really it is just a bus ride away to another neighborhood.
So what did the book club think of My Brilliant Friend? Yes, we had a few attendees who fell in love with the book in textbook-style form. They had already read the second and third books in the series. Many of the rest of the attendees liked the book, and of course several did not. Would it be a good discussion otherwise?
We had an interesting discussion about the ending of the story, which without giving anything away, was a bit polarizing. If you were planning to read the whole series, it sort of gave you no choice but to start reading The Story of a New Name immediately. If you wanted closure, the audience was divided. Some felt left hanging, while others thought it ended on a clever twist and they felt comfortable writing the endings for the characters themselves.
Martha is one of the folks who loved the book, and noted that while these stores are actually toned down from the previous works from Ferrante, the violence against women is definitely an undercurrent in the story. We thought there was at least one implied rape, and in another case, a young character had to fend off the sexual advances of a much older man. And yes, he's the father of the boy she's fond of, which makes it a little difficult to see him.
Gail loved the friendship in particular. It was so complicated and nuanced. They were often dependent on each other. Who is "My Brilliant Friend"? is a question that came up several times in the discussion. The answer was probably that they both were at different times. (At right is the book in Turkish!)
We also talked about the significance of clothes in the story, and not just the shoes that Lina designs, though they have a fairy tale like significance to the story. Especially because Elena is looking back on the story from a sixty-something year old, these are memories and the clothes are probably akin to Madeleines (which I really don't want to capitalize, but the internet insists). We just had Madeleines at Christine Sneed's talk for Paris, He Said, so that's probably why I bring them up.
And then I should note that some of the attendees were bored. Albert and Juli bonded over this, but after thinking their tastes were in sync, they found they diverged greatly for our next bonus book discussion, for Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred-Year House. One of them loved, loved, loved it, the other not so much.
There are lot of interesting pieces on Elena Ferrante, but this long piece in The New York Review of Books from Rachel Donadio should satisfy your Ferrante fever until the new book comes out on September 1. I should note that one rumor that follows the author is that the books are actually written by the man, or that she's already a well-known person writing under a pseudonym. Her writing denies this, but of course that could be part of the ruse.
Well, actually this essay by Rebecca Falkoff in Public Books really lays it on the line, including offering the two schools of thought in Italy, as Ferrante's work has finally become an important topic, now that her popularity has grown (some say "exploded") in the United States, coming to a head as they discussed whether her work should be nominated for the Strega Prize. The two groups are either self-flagellating or condescending. Italy has been beset by fraudulent Ferrante letters. It's really fascinating. She discusses who they think is actually Ferrante, and why the works of Christa Wolf come into play