Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein) is a wonderful novel, one I enjoyed from start to finish. It tells the story of two girls growing up in 1950s Naples and is actually the first part of a trilogy. The story is narrated by Elena, a bookish girl you suspect is an alter-ego of the writer, but the central figure of the novel is her best friend Lila, a character who defies description, both for the reader and Elena herself.
Lila is a young woman who can't be pinned down. A poor girl with a fierce intelligence and an undeniable charisma, she chooses Elena as a friend at a young age, and while Elena is never able to rid herself of the feeling of coming off second-best in every possible way (looks, intelligence, sexual allure, success), she feels proud that Lila has singled her out as the only person in her neighbourhood worthy of being her confidante.
The neighbourhood is itself a focus of My Brilliant Friend. The two girls are growing up in a poor area of a poor city in the poorer part of Italy, and Elena acquaints the reader with a suburb used to violence:
"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."
p.37 (Europa Editions, 2012)
Violence, actual or imminent, pervades the novel: husbands and wives brawl; fathers and sons injure each other in senseless quarrels; and on the streets, knives and guns are more common than you would expect...
The concept that drives the story along is that this is a place, and a life, to escape from, and while the two friends start off with the same idea, studying hard in the hope of some day becoming rich enough to escape, they eventually drift onto different paths. While Lila is the genius, it is Elena who manages to stay on the academic straight-and-narrow, striving to be top of the class each term despite having no clear idea of what advantages might arise from her efforts. Lila, on the other hand, decides that a long-delayed possible future success is not for her - instead, she thinks that marriage may well be the way to escape her fate. Towards the end of the novel, flaws begin to appear in Lila's perfection though, and we begin to wonder which of the pair the 'brilliant friend' actually is...
There's a lot to like about My Brilliant Friend. In its depiction of an unequal friendship, narrated by the less confident of the two friends, it reminds me of classic novels like Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes and Günter Grass' Cat and Mouse, and as in those novels, it becomes increasingly clear that the lot of the 'superior' friend is not always the happier one. As a child, Lila is streets ahead of everyone else, but even she cannot extract herself completely from the social ties binding her, slowly pulling her down into the traditional fate reserved for Neapolitan women. It appears that she has made her choices freely, but how free can she be in a man's world?
The book is also a stark, at times brutal, look at class differences, and the way your future can often be ordained at birth. Most of the action takes place in Elena and Lila's neighbourhood, but the girls do venture further afield at times. When they do, it can come as bit of a wake-up call, as is the case when they walk into a richer area of Naples:
"It was like crossing a border. I remember a dense crowd and a sort of humiliating difference. I looked not at the boys, but at the girls, the women: they were absolutely different from us. They seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of wind." (p.192)
The group of friends from the poor suburbs feel out of place among the well off. The choice they have is to retreat to their part of town, or adapt and fit in.
This class difference is also shown linguistically. The native language for most of the characters is dialect, and the switches between dialect and Italian usually represent class differences between characters and situations. The more educated Elena becomes, the more she uses Italian, even if she still retains mastery of her first language. It's tricky to balance these two sides of her character though - some areas (such as the mysteries of the Holy Trinity...) just can't seem to be discussed in dialect...
My Brilliant Friend is a book which makes for compelling, compulsive reading, one I sped through in a couple of days, and it's also a novel which makes you reflect long after the last page has been read. While we are living the story through Elena, and following her slow progress towards an education, maturity and (possibly) future prosperity, we are also witness to the alternative path taken by Lila, wondering if she has miscalculated in her plan to escape a life of poverty and drudgery.
The book ends dramatically, and not in the way you expect. Even if I hadn't known My Brilliant Friend was the first part of a trilogy, I would have been expecting a sequel - there are too many questions here left unanswered. Luckily, we won't have to wait long, as Europa are publishing the second part, The Story of a New Name, in September. Rest assured, I won't be leaving it as long to get around to Ferrante's work the second time around ;)