Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Book - My Brilliant FriendI thought about reading something by the famous Elena Ferrante a few months ago, looked up her books online and was surprised by rather quaint, odd-looking covers and mediocre titles. But the obsession in the media with Ferrante’s true identity did its work, and curiosity eventually won. My Brilliant Friend (the first of her ‘Neopolitan Novels’) captured my attention immediately (once I’d got past the hideous cover and lengthy character index) with a missing mother and a tale of lifelong friendship.   

It goes on to describe (through the voice of the protagonist Elena Greco) a childhood of poverty and daring, violence and hope. Elena and Lila’s friendship is based on mutual rivalry, as they challenge each other to ever more extraordinary feats. The plot constantly backtracks, returning again and again to explain the origin of various scenarios and introduce more characters. We meet the “ogre” Don Achille (who is accused of various atrocious deeds) and Melina (a widow) who becomes obsessed with her married neighbour (Donato Sarratore) to the consternation of his wife, who eventually persuades him to move away, leaving Melina distraught.

The girls are both clever, but Lila is exceptional – she has an incredible intellect which is demonstrated in school competitions, and soon develops a reputation for being defiant, smart and impudent. Elena constantly compares herself with her friend, but she is more conventionally pretty, less outrageous. Inspired by reading their first book – Little Women, they both dream of one day writing a novel and leaving poverty behind them.

The two girls soon become separated when Elena is allowed to attend Middle School, but Lila’s parents won’t let her, though she is the most intelligent child in the neighbourhood. She protests by declaring that she will go anyway, but this comes to nothing and her protest soon becomes a silent one, as she devours her way through library books instead, teaching herself Latin and Greek.

Eventually, Lila appears to give up on education, becoming fixated with business ideas, designing new shoes in her father’s shoe repair shop. This leads to family quarrels, and the all-consuming attention of the Solara brothers (the only men in the neighbourhood to own a car). Stefano (the eldest son of Don Achille) eventually captures Lila’s heart, and she soon finds herself playing the role of the elegant fiancée.

Meanwhile, Elena is given a precious glimpse of life outside the neighbourhood, where she can read, swim in the sea and enjoy herself, but she grows uneasy spending so much time apart from Lila, and soon develops a minor obsession with Donato (the man who Melina was in love with) after discovering that he has published a book of poetry. But her vision of him as an ideal family man is brutally displaced, and she is confused by her attraction towards Nino, his son.

There is tension as the two girls grow further apart. Lila becomes a sophisticated young woman with a wealthy fiancé, whilst Elena is still at school, overshadowed by Lila’s charm and elegance. The writing seems therapeutic, as Elena describes the changes in their friendship, and appears to analyse the relationship, comparing herself and Lila in a neutral tone:

“I let go of ideas, books. I went on to admire all those gifts… I tried on the dresses and jewellery; I almost immediately noticed that they would never suit me as they did her; and I was depressed.”

There is one particular moment, towards the end of the book, where the contrast in their fortunes is thrown into sharp relief. Lila is preparing for her wedding, whilst Elena is excited by the thrill of possible publication in a magazine. Elena shows her friend the piece she has written, and Lila agrees to read it, but finds the process physically painful, as if, by allowing herself to praise and criticize her friend’s work, she is also admitting to herself that she has failed to achieve her own dreams.

My Brilliant Friend is an honest coming-of-age story in which Elena begins to learn who she is and what she can become. It is a book about hopes and desires, about ambition and the power of education over circumstance. Education changes the way Elena sees herself and those around her. Gradually, she begins to understand how her origins could either hold her back or let her go.

On a superficial level, this novel should not work, as it is too full of subplots and minor characters, but Ferrante’s writing is addictive. Ultimately, it’s a book about friendship, survival, and choices, and it leaves you wanting more, needing to read on and discover what will happen to Elena and Lila as they continue to grow up in a world full of violence and prejudice.

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Read more about Elena Ferrante here.