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Bibliophile By The Sea: "The translation is excellent...the author is a master of creating a wonderful sense of place."

Date: Sep 19 2012

The first in a proposed trilogy, by an Italian author I've enjoyed in the past, My Brilliant Friend, releases next week. The story takes place outside of Naples in a poor part of town. It's a town where people work hard just to put food on the tables of their families, tempers flare and violence is not unusual. Even good friends aren't always kind to one another.

The story begins in the present with a phone call and then flashes back to the 1950s. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are young girls who meet at the age of eight in the 1950s  and become friends. Both are from poor families and growing up has it's challenges, but Lila's family has even less than Elena's family.  This is evidenced by the jealousy Lila feels when she first sees Elena's somewhat superior doll.  The girls are playing and Lila throws her doll down a grate and then challenges Elena to do the same with her doll. When they can't find the dolls in the basement area, Lila tells Elena, the the town's most feared man, Don Achille has taken the dolls and put them in his bag. She challenges Elena to confront him.

Lila, is clearly the leader, a bully who can stand up for herself. She's one of the most hated children in school at an early age. A girl who is brilliant, has spunk and determination and one who doesn't take no for an answer.  Elena is the good girl, also smart, however, she has to work very hard for good grades, while it comes naturally for her friend Lila.  Elena is also a follower who is constantly being challenged by her friend to do things that she is uncomfortable doing.

Sadly, in 1950's Italy even bright children do not automatically attend high school and college, oftentimes being expected to help the family out by working.  It is at this point that the girls paths take different turns, and ultimately the reader is left with lots of questions, which begs for another novel about  Lila and Elena grown up years.

An interesting passage:

"I felt no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.......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."

There is an interesting section in the novel where Lila talks about having episodes of "dissolving boundaries" where on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolve and disappear. In fact this novel begins with a present day telephone call from Rico, a son of Lila to Elena saying that his 66 year-old mother has disappeared, so there are many questions that go unanswered.

I liked this new novel, but I had a few issues with it as well.  Even though it is really Elena and Lila's story (and they are such memorable protagonists), there are so many many characters in this novel. After a while, in my mind at least, I just figured each new person was pretty much someone related to one of the girls or a friend of someone else.  To me, all these non essential characters made the plot drag in certain parts, but don't get me wrong, this is still a story worth reading.

The translation is excellent and the author is a master of creating a wonderful sense of place. I could visualize the sights, sounds, smells of the villages, as well as the appearances of the characters. It's a story of family, of friendship and of the struggles and challenges of an impoverished life.  I suspect that the sequels to follow will nicely fill in the missing pieces of Elena and Lila's middle-aged years.

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