My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A publishing phenomenon, not just in the original Italian, but also in its translated versions, this is the first book of Elena Ferrante’s famed Neapolitan quartet. Based on the lifelong and complex friendship between two girls growing up in a tough, poverty ridden neighborhood of Naples, Italy, the books were made even more famous because of its author’s recalcitrance- Ferrante is a pseudonym for an unknown person, who some feel may even be a male. However, a recent investigation by a magazine does purport to trace the truth of the mystery behind the author. But I honestly believe that it isn’t too important to know her true identity. Above all, if the anonymity does, as she also claims, help her come up with her impressive tomes by aiding her creative process, then maybe we should just let her be.

The book opens in the present day, with a frantic exchange between one of the protagonists, Elena, and the son of the other protagonist. Lila, his mother and Elena’s lifelong friend, is missing; behavior which is not entirely unexpected from her. After this brief prologue, Elena narrates the story of their lives starting from the time they were pre-teens and forging their friendship. This takes us back to 1950’s Naples and the years after the war.

It’s a friendship which had its share of challenges, but one in which the two girls kept pushing each other to better themselves and subtly impress the other. The neighborhood they grow up in, in Naples, is a tough, spare and violent place. Public spats within and among families is common, and physical abuse in families is so common that it is almost a norm. There is a certain hierarchy and code of honor which everyone almost imperceptibly follows and deviance from it is considered a sin. Lila is from a family of shoemakers and is a bright, enigmatic and at times nerve wracking child. Elena’s father works as a porter at the City Hall, and she too is a bright kid, though more conventional in appearance and behavior. However, as they play their games of one-upmanship in class and outside, it becomes obvious that Lina is a prodigious talent, and yet one who could be restricted by her modest and conservative circumstances from achieving further formal education beyond primary school. As Elena makes her way through middle school and high school, Lila joins her father and elder brother in the shoe shop where they make their living. Even there, she decides to come up with a path to glory. Elena, meanwhile, decides that her life may just be driven by the desire to appear acceptably brilliant in Linl’s eyes, and she keeps up on her schoolwork if only to impress Lila initially.

The reality of their circumstances don’t escape them though. The violence, poverty and assumed codes of honor pull them back from time to time, yet these girls persevere through growing pains, love, sexuality and heartbreak. While initially Lila appeared a scrawny kid who just wouldn’t look grown up, soon she is the cynosure of the neighborhood boys. One of the Solara brothers, who virtually lord over the neighborhood, takes a strong shine to her and starts a courtship which she just cannot imagine giving into. Then there is the son of the former don (murdered by someone known to the girls), who is now a well off grocer trying to change the ways of the neighborhood. Elena, on the other hand, has a growing insecurity about her own looks and limited forays into romance. The culmination of the book sees a marriage, and a throwaway line which sets up an interesting, almost cliff hanger-ish) prelude to the second book of the series.

I have to admit, my knowledge of Naples is limited to hearing about their football team and of the exploits of a certain Diego Maradona in the late 1980’s for them. But, here the tough neighborhoods are brought to vivid life in simple, understated prose by the author. There is also always the lurking presence of the feared Camorra gangsters on the fringes of the tale. This is far away from the glamour and grandeur of the average Italian vacation dream, though I heard tourism to Naples in general has increased after these books became a global phenomenon. I liked the way the author brings us into the mind of a growing adolescent girl and let us view things from a perspective not necessarily familiar to us. In some ways I found it to be the grown up equivalent of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While those beautiful books could allow young boys to experience life from the perspective of mostly girl characters, these could allow the same for grownups. The complex ambiguities and the warmth of a lifelong friendship started in childhood is also intricately captured and allow us to feel for these people and their city. I am intrigued enough to give the second book of the quartet a go.

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