This came to me through the Europa Holiday Swap organized by Marie (thanks Marie!) and I am quite glad I decided to participate as this is one by its description I might have put off entirely otherwise. I felt last year I had temporarily reached my quota for coming of age stories, and this falls squarely into that category. However, Ferrante is an author others could take a few lessons from on the genre. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND might be the first novel I've read where the story of two distinct characters with two unique voices is ably told through the voice of only one. Elena and Lila are fantastic guides to post-WWII lower class Naples; either character is worthy of their own novel, yet Ferrante creates an equally captivating character out of the friendship and bond between them.
Some might criticize Ferrante for the surprisingly adult thoughts her young protagonists display in their adolescent years, but I found the hardships and lifestyle they grow up with to more than suit their maturity progression. Moreover, Ferrante establishes early on that this story is told from memory, allowing for a more adult-like retrospective. Finally, as I have mentioned before, nothing puts me off a work more quickly than a well-done teenage prose so bless Ms. Ferrante for sparing me that.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is the first in a trilogy to published by Europa from Ms. Ferrante about these two characters. Without spoiling too much of the plot, Elena and Lila are two young ladies growing up in the same poorer neighborhood of Naples in the 1950's. Both girls are quite intelligent, though Lila's intelligence seems to be more innate while Elena's is earned through more study and work. In a time where fewer women were educated in Italy, Elena is able to continue through to the equivalent of middle school and high school while Lila is not. However, she remains close with Elena despite, studying and reading on her own as much as if not more than Elena does. As they grow, each finds aspects of the other's life they envy and others they feel they've gotten the better end of the deal on. Despite their sometimes divergent roads, they maintain a strong bond with each other as they watch their families, their friends, their neighborhood and themselves change and grow.
Ms. Ferrante's prose and dialogues flows through Elena and Lila's teenage years in the same tumultuous way those years seem to pass for all of us, evoking that same hesitancy and speed that so often mark the change from child to adult. Many major events are foreshadowed in a manner that very much reminded me of how often we as adults foreshadows stories we tell, "and then something very important happened," almost as if we want to warn those listening to us. These two women grow up knowing that they are from living high on the hog, yet never seem to see this as a burden. Instead, they see a duty to their friends and family to help them as best they can. Ferrante is particularly adept with her descriptions of the roles class, gender, occupation and age play in the daily lives of her characters. Her Naples is bursting with color and life, even among the poverty that exists in the neighborhood where Elena and Lila mature.
I'm quite glad I received this gem of a read through the book swap and look forward to the next two installments. It definitely ends with a cliffhanger, especially considering what we know from the opening about where these characters end up. My next read for this year will be YOU ARE NOT LIKE OTHER MOTHERS, which I am enjoying pretty well in its early pages.