My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan novels kept coming into and out of my awareness this past year. It’s not what I’m necessarily drawn to read, but I find that when a book repeatedly gets paid attention, there is some kind of widespread appeal. That sounds a bit more “common denominator” than I want. But a few writers or writing can rise to a level that pulls in readers outside their genre, pulls in low-volume readers, and simply gets people talking.

[The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (started out unknown, hard to think of that now) are other examples of books that (seemingly) came out of nowhere.]

My Brilliant Friend’s short prologue has the narrator, Elena, and her friend at sixty-six. The friend, Lila, has gone missing. The body of the story begins when they’re six years old. It takes place in 1950s Naples, an impoverished neighbourhood, post-war. It’s a setting that’s fresh to me, certainly, and not one I would have even thought to read about.

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood; it was full of violence.

It really was, reported matter of factly. For example, there’s a day where the two girls take off for the sea—they live close to the water but don’t go there, their world is small. When they return, Elena’s mother is angry.

At night my mother reported everything to my father and compelled him to beat me. He was irritated; he didn’t want to and they ended up fighting. First he hit her, then, angry at himself, he gave me a beating.

Husbands beat wives, children are beaten, fights break out where men are beaten bloody. But it’s this observation that her father didn’t actually want to beat her, at least at first, that gets me.

It’s a very textured read. In some ways not a lot happens as the girls grow up, but in other ways a lot is going on. Both girls are clever, and the narrator goes far in school, reaching high school, an anomaly in this time and place. According to Elena, her friend Lila was much more clever—the text supports this, although we are only in Elena’s point of view—but her family will not allow Lila to go on. They won’t pay for school, and they want Lila to work at home or in the shop.

It’s heartbreaking near the end when Lila calls the narrator her brilliant friend, because the entire novel has shown how brilliant Lila has been, how much Elena has learned from her and leaned on her academically. You’ve been thinking all this time that the title refers to Lila. And early on, it is Lila who wants to write books like Little Women’s author and make money to bring her out of poverty.

It sounds depressing, I guess, but it isn’t exactly. At least I didn’t find it so. The characters are complex. You see a lot of sharp, jagged edges; they’re not always pretty in behavior, in thought, in action. But there’s a heart here, and a stamina I admire.

It’s the first of four books that make up one long story. This one runs from the ages of six to sixteen. The next is The Story of a New Name, which I want to read before too long. There are a lot of names to keep straight, and I’d like the knowledge of My Brilliant Friend to be fresh in my mind.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an adult book about kids. I used to read these a lot, or at least a big section of a book would focus on childhood. Of course when I try to think of titles, I don’t come up with many, so maybe I’m mistaken? The Diviners by Margaret Laurence begins early. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Some Alice Munro stories. I’m sure there are more. I wonder if the rise of YA’s popularity and the broadening of its scope has sheered off some of this kind of writing? Although that’s a tentative, uninformed idea, given that my reading patterns are the factor more than anything else.

I spent a chunk of my twenties reading…I’m not sure what to call it these days. Litfic? Mainstream? Upmarket? Non-genre? I bought into the idea these books (and classics) were more “worthy” reads. In retrospect I read a lot of absolute crap, there’s crap in any book type. But I do enjoy reading these on occasion, and My Brilliant Friend makes me nostalgic for that time in my teens when I’d get books out of the library with absolutely no idea what to expect. Despite the buzz, I had a fuzzy idea of what I was getting into when I opened the prologue. In part because it might be hard to write about My Brilliant Friend. (I seem to be writing all around the actual book here.)

The author’s name is a pseudonym, and as I understand it, she shuns attention, in Italy and abroad. There’s an interesting take here.

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