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Turnaround Publisher Services: "This is a novel about humanity, about growing up in a rapidly-changing world, about dissatisfaction with one’s station in life."

Date: Jun 2 2015

On the absolute brilliance of My Brilliant Friend

If you haven’t already noticed through our social media output or general internet-enthusiasm lately, we’re completely gung-ho for Elena Ferrante. This isn’t just because we’re lucky enough to be distributing her books. It’s because frankly, those books are incredible. Seriously so.

Published by Europa, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are something else. They’ve caused a publicity-quake throughout the book industry, with finicky critics stopping dead in their tracks to shout about their brilliance. They have been called ‘The publishing story of the decade.’ They’ve graced bookstore windows and have played a leading role at book fairs all over the world.

The Neapolitan novels (thus far including My Brilliant friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those who Stay) are epic in scope and about as multi-layered and powerfully complex as they come. Written in first person, the story is narrated by Elena and focuses on the unbreakable yet brittle friendship between her and Lila, a girl from the same neighbourhood.

If you have read anything at all about Ferrante over these last few months, you probably already know that. The friendship between Elena and Lila has been at the forefront of most reviews. It’s definitely a weighty anchor to the books, but after reading them (think: unable to sleep with the lure of one more chapter/ missing your tube stop/ letting toast burn sort of reading) there is SO much more to these novels. There is so much exploding and reeling underneath every sentence that there is no limit to the amount of essays, articles and general pub-chat one could produce as a consequence of having read them.

Here at Turnaround HQ we have become total Ferrante addicts. We’ve been leaving the office to read into the early hours and arriving the next morning full of things to say. Yes, there have been tense moments when someone has tried to drop a spoiler in the middle of the working day. There have been near-disasters when Ferrante’s notoriously mighty endings have made it into office book-talk at 9am. There have been hisses and quick escapes to avoid any potential plot- ruiners.

Now though, we are all at a similar point in the Neapolitan epic, which is mostly anxiously waiting for September when the fourth and final book will cannonball onto UK bookshelves.

It’s proving a painful wait. And so to fill the gap we thought we’d offer up our thoughts on the books, starting from the beginning, in a blog post a month. And hey, by the time we get to the third in the series it will already be September, when The Story of the Lost Child will finally be released.

So without further ado, take a look at what Turnaround’s very own marketing team have to say about My Brilliant Friend, the first in Ferrante’s masterpiece….

I have no doubt that everyone reading this blog post has seen at least half a dozen reviews of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels saying “OMG SO UTTERLY AMAZING”, while simultaneously wondering what exactly is the big deal. I am here to say that sometimes hype exists for a reason. This is one of those cases.

Reading the first three novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series has been, without a doubt, the most pleasurable reading experience of my life. These novels are perfect, combining the feel of a thriller with literary prowess. They are stay-up-all-night, forget-to-eat-dinner, ignore-your-husband-for-hours great. Although it is difficult to talk solely about My Brilliant Friend without alluding to the novels that follow (they continue the story seamlessly), I will do my best to reflect only on the first novel.

Although the series is set against 1950s Naples, still reeling from the effects of WWII, fascism and the rise of communism, this story is simply about two young girls – Elena (Lenú) and Lila – and how their paths converge as they go from children to young women, and as their circumstances drive them apart in a number of ways. I don’t wish to give away anything further. You MUST read this book.

I come from very different circumstances to Lenú and Lila, but still I found myself able to connect with the characters in the deepest way. Not only are they perfectly written – Ferrante’s prose is beyond wonderful and Ann Goldstein’s English translation has been rightly acclaimed; there is so much beauty in nearly every sentence – but the relationship between the two girls mirrors at least one of my own. The reason this novel speaks to me is that I can see myself within it – I can see myself as a young woman, wanting my friends and me to stay together and the same forever, while in reality seeing us all change vastly and take different paths. I don’t think this experience is unique to me. Everyone has someone they’ve known forever, or someone who affects them and drives them to react in startling ways. It is this that really drew me into the novel; Ferrante knows that a friendship isn’t black-and-white, all love all the time. She understands that people are more complicated than that and that sometimes the person you care about most is the person who also makes you feel the most anger, the most jealousy, the most confusion and the most sadness.

Critics have made much noise about Ferrante’s perfect portrayal of friendship between women, and this is very much true. But this series isn’t just about relationships between women, but about humanity itself, and how one can both love and hate the people we love most. How we can feel we know someone intimately, while also discovering they are a complete enigma.

I firmly believe that everyone should read this series. It is a crime to categorise it as “women’s fiction” just because it is by a woman, about two women. It’s a sin to compare Ferrante to “an angry Jane Austen”, missing the point entirely. This is a novel about humanity, about growing up in a rapidly-changing world, about dissatisfaction with one’s station in life. Furthermore it features the most interesting, complex and well-drawn portrayal of a relationship I have ever encountered in any storytelling medium. The two main characters would be nothing without each other, and their story is addicting.

What is really special about My Brilliant Friend is its depiction of friendship. Of course, as an idea, that friendships can be as treacherous and heart-breaking and romantic and intense and formative as sexual relationships isn’t new. But I haven’t ever seen it represented so accurately in any form of media. My Brilliant Friend painstakingly documents the ups and downs of a friendship in a way that’s really validating to everyone that has even had a friendship like that but not known how to express its importance. At no point does the narrator say, ‘ooh I know it’s silly to care this much about a friendship, she’s not my wife.’ In her stringent refusal to gaslight herself, Ferrante gives everyone else permission to do the same.

This is perhaps embarrassing to admit, but I actually set my alarm an hour and a half early this morning so I could read some more of The Story of a New Name (the next in the Neapolitan series after My Brilliant Friend) before work. The whole Turnaround office is gripped with #FerranteFever so it’s imperative that I catch up quickly as there are only so many spoilers I can dodge by exclaiming, ‘I’m only on book two!’ whenever people start to talk. About anything. I’ve shouted this at someone trying to hand me an invoice in the last week. Let my shame be your spur, and READ THESE BOOKS.

Before even touching a copy of My Brilliant Friend, my interest was quite seriously piqued. A feminist novel about two women set in post war Italy and written by a reclusive author whose identity is a mystery? Yes please! Working as a bookseller teaches you to be disgruntled about hype, but the premise of Ferrante’s book proved too tempting. So in I went.

There is really too much to go into in a paragraph. I had so many feels about this book that even knowing where to begin is a trial. The story of Elena and Lila is shockingly authentic from the first few pages. As are the struggles they face, not only as humans from a poverty-stricken neighbourhood, surrounded by a dangerous obsession with money, but also as women. Seeing them fight for an education, Elena more successfully than Lila, is both heart-wrenching and angry-making. Watching them be set up for failure by the super-traditionally-minded men (and often women) in their lives is saddening and resonant. But their story also makes you determined as they are determined.

Ferrante’s writing is intense, even more so for what it does not say than for what it does. It’s all-absorbing; there are so many layers that express how Elena is feeling without her having to even describe what that is. The language sort of does it for her. And the relationship she has with Lila is one of the most hard-boiled yet realistic I’ve ever read.

It wouldn’t be a lie to say My Brilliant Friend is one of the most staggering reading experiences I’ve had. And that’s only the first book. If you haven’t read it yet, do so! If you have read it, all I can say is…THE SHOES.

Where to start with the Neapolitan novels? As a lover of all things translated, and a natural curmudgeon when it comes to all things hyped (a hangover from my years as a bookseller), I have to admit I felt a slight wariness before embarking on this series. Could these books live up to those impossibly complimentary plaudits that garnish each cover? Are we really in the presence of an ‘angry Jane Austen’, the author of a series that is ‘a marvel without limits and beyond genre’? The answer, which became apparent after approximately the first ten pages of My Brilliant Friend, is a resounding yes.

Much has been made of Ferrante’s ability as a chronicler of history through these novels, but much of that arrives later in the series; in truth, the Neapolitan setting is less important in this first volume. What My Brilliant Friend does, wonderfully and seemingly without effort, is to establish a pair of characters, kindle their friendship, and set them off on two radically different, yet frequently dovetailing paths. Ferrante asks over and over again, What makes a person who they are? How do apparently small decisions affect the course of their lives? Why do people choose to diverge or conform? Why do we feel the need to compare ourselves to others?

By continuing to chip away at these questions, turning them over in almost forensically personal detail and presenting the findings without trickery or stylistic gimmicks, Ferrante achieves a humanity that I’ve rarely encountered in any writing. Her depiction of childhood, with all of its morphing mythology and casual trauma, serves as a perfect platform for the remarkable events that are yet to come; yet these nascent lives already feel momentous – testament to the power of Ferrante’s storytelling.

It’s hard to pin down what makes these books, and in particular My Brilliant Friend, so compulsively readable (and much credit should go to Ann Goldstein for a flawless translation). I certainly haven’t felt the sheer need to read the next volume of a series immediately since The Border Trilogy, or even The Lord of the Rings. But the Neapolitan novels surpass both of those series, simply because of their widescreen, relentless, unashamedly emotional depictions of life and love in all of its guises.

Seriously. Look at how much we all loved this book! If you’ve read it, let us know what you thought. And keep an eye on this blog next month, when we’ll tell you what we thought of The Story of a New Name.

And remember, the final installment in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, is published by Europa this September (9781609452865, p/b, £11.99)

Don’t miss it! #ferrantefever.

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