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Food for Bookworms: ‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante – A Unique Friendship Blossoms in 1950s Italy

Date: Apr 7 2015

Genre: Bildungsroman, Contemporary Fiction, Family Saga

For fans of: Milan Kundera, Aki Ollikainen


"Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls."

I have to admit, it’s taken me a while to write this review because I’ve had to give it a week or so just to compose my feelings about this novel. I’ve heard whispers about the greatness of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series since the beginning of 2014 but it’s only recently that I got round to picking up a copy of the first novel in the tetralogy – My Brilliant Friend - for myself.

"[…] there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit."

A bildungsroman with a difference, the first installment of the Neapolitan series is narrated by Elena (Lenu) Greco and details her path from childhood to adolescence in a small but colourful community on the outskirts of 1950s Naples, Italy. Throughout the novel Elena finds herself in competition with wild child-genius and best friend Lila. The pair are constantly in the throes of jealousy – whether it’s because of boys, school or simply childish dares – and the friends frequently find themselves living vicariously through one another, with their unusual power struggle forming the basis of their unique friendship. I remember one particularly heartbreaking scene during which a jealous Lila almost gets Elena into trouble and it’s implied her overarching motive is to have Lenu kicked out of the Latin classes that Lila can’t afford to attend.

"[…] the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance."

This original literary friendship is one of the two reasons I’ve fallen in love with this novel. The second is Elena’s adamant hold on her childish naivety against the brutal truths of reality she’s faced with in everyday life. Despite covering around 7 or so years in just over 300 pages, Ferrante somehow manages to make the reader feel integral to Lenu’s life, sometimes laying out her feelings in excruciating detail. One of the critic’s comments on the cover of the book describes My Brilliant Friend as “cinematic in the density of its detail” and I couldn’t think of a more perfect description. Lenu’s intimate narration immediately invites the reader into her confidence, leaving you vulnerable to feel every little jilt, frustration and exultation as she does.

Throughout the book you can feel the outside world and changing times encroaching on Lenu’s town, creating a constant sense of uneasiness on the peripheries. The rich exuberance of the Solara family and Don Achille’s hinted-at mafia status filter into the girls’ lives at an early age, but as time goes on the influence of the outside world becomes less reconcilable. Lila is always there on the cusp, welcoming in change with open arms; whether it’s when she fearlessly accuses Don Achille of having kidnapped her doll, daring Lenu into venturing outside the village or later embracing the fickle fashions of Naples.

"Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time."

On the other hand, Elena always finds herself trailing behind, more adverse to change. This becomes more apparent as the novel goes on, with her further education in a Naples school leaving her increasingly dissatisfied with the conversation of her peers back in her hometown and nurturing an impending sense of isolation as her and Lila’s lives drift apart. It’s at times like this that it’s easy to forget just how young these characters are.

A beautiful epic that is guaranteed to pull at the heart strings, once you start on Elena’s journey you won’t be able stop. With the fourth and final installment of the series due out in September this year, you can be sure that I’ll be making my way through the sequels to My Brilliant Friend over the next few months. So keep an eye out for more Elena Ferrante reviews soon! In the mean time you need this book in your life.

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