The Italian novelist Elena Ferrante apparently has made a dazzling career out of her small handful of phantasmagoric, disorienting novels about people undone by routine adversity.
Or maybe she hasn’t.
Although her publisher, Europa Editions, released a collection of her letters this summer, it’s rumored that the famously reclusive avant-garde genius is actually Domenico Starnone, the far more prolific novelist and screenwriter. Whether this speculation is true or merely the result of some lingering misogyny left over from the Berlusconi era is of academic consequence: Everyone should read anything with her name on it.
“My Brilliant Friend,” her latest, is no exception, although it is exceptional: It is her most accessible novel to date and, as the first volume of a proposed trilogy, her most ambitious.
The book begins, in typical Ferrante fashion, with a disappearance. In “Days of Abandonment,” it was a husband; in “The Lost Daughter,” a child. Here, as in “Troubling Love,” it’s a mother, in this case Lina, who has long expressed the desire to disappear without a trace. When she appears to have succeeded, her ne’er-do-well son Rino calls Lina’s best friend Elena in Turin to see whether she’s turned up. “She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind,” Elena narrates, endeavoring to punish Lina by writing her story. “We’ll see who wins this time.”
The book follows the women’s rivalrous friendship from the ages of six to 17, from the late 1940s until the late 1950s, a time of economic upheaval in Italy. Elena, the daughter of a porter, and Lina, the daughter of the shoemaker, attend the same shabby school in a shabby Neapolitan neighborhood. They’re studious girls in a place that doesn’t put much stock in studiousness, particularly when it comes to women. The way they fight against and capitulate to the expectations of their neighborhood shape the plot as much as their uncanny devotion to one other.
And what a neighborhood it is: depressed, violent, filled with grudges held over from World War II and beyond. Its horrors, recalled in Elena’s generous, unsparing, and frequently very funny voice, take on epic proportions. “Our world was . . . full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection,” she writes. To say nothing of its inhabitants, who curse each other at frightening volumes. They throw things — and sometimes people — out of windows. They routinely make each other bleed. As Elena reflects, “[W]e grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” Ferrante writes astonishingly well about young Elena’s partial understanding of the complex forces that shape her existence. A former Fascist black-marketeer becomes a monster of mythical proportions, a sewer grate the entrance to the underworld.
Lina, the twisted product of this uncanny world, is Ferrante’s most terrifying creation — no small feat. As a young child, she is a menace: skinny and dark-eyed and willing to meet violence with violence. The reader first sees her hurtling pieces of paper dipped in ink at her classmates. To make matters worse, she’s a wunderkind: Although no one in her family is educated, she starts reading at three, writes a novel, and learns dead languages for fun. Elena is both frightened and enthralled by her. Their early friendship is defined by acts of ever-escalating daring and sabotage.
When Lina grows up to be a knockout, forget it. A scene in which Elena notices Lina’s changing body for the first time must stand among the most emotionally accurate ever written about puberty. “Her high forehead, her large eyes that could suddenly narrow, her small nose, her cheekbones, her lips, her ears were looking for a new orchestration and seemed close to finding it,” she writes. Lina’s beauty not only alters the girls’ friendship but life in Naples itself: Boys and men fall in love with her and resent one another accordingly.
Elena remains a more bookish sort. Her continued schooling is both a blessing and a curse, sparing her the drudgeries of contributing to family upkeep while alienating friends forced into menial jobs at a young age. She is pimply and depressed, but the alternative isn’t much better. The downtrodden wives of the neighborhood engage in sometimes violent rivalries, their well-being bound up entirely in the whims of men who beat them. The teachers are of a different sort, like Maestra Olivera, the girls’ mentor and goad, whose education inspires fear and obedience in her charges’ parents. In Naples in the 1950s, no woman can have it all, or much of anything.
Ferrante has long explored the effects of patriarchy on smart Italian women, but here she takes on what it does to an entire neighborhood. “My Brilliant Friend” has so many characters that it comes with a cast list, but most are so indelible it proves unnecessary. Each is shaped, in her own way, by poverty, violence, and the tumult of the past. In the novel’s last pages, they are all brought together by a wedding, a scene that stands well enough on its own as an ending but as the first part of a trilogy becomes a psychological cliffhanger. It seems cruel to make readers wait for the next installment.