My favorite book in years, and I nearly missed it. My Brilliant Friend is the first of the Neapolitan Novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, a series of four novels about the friendship of Elena and Lila beginning in 1950’s Naples.
Its appearance in translation was noted in a paragraph in the New York Times Book Review in 2012, my usual starting point for locating new literary adventures. My Brilliant Friend didn’t become a bestseller then, but it is now. I discovered it almost by accident but for months resisted reading it. I may have missed the paragraph about My Brilliant Friend three years ago, but the final book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, received full court press: glowing accolades in the Book Review and a separate, stunning review by Times critic Michiko Kakutami in the daily edition. (I am gleefully discarding the bad habits of the legal profession. If I were writing a brief, I would have written the New York Times Book Review (the “Book Review.”) ) I didn’t pick up The Story of the Lost Child then because reading it would have meant reading the three earlier novels in the series, including My Brilliant Friend, a huge commitment. I still didn’t pick up My Brilliant Friend even though it appeared on the Times trade paperback bestseller list on September 20, 2015. In early December, The Story of the Lost Child was named a top ten novel of the year by the Times. It received still more year-end recognition from the Washington Post and NPR. I overcame my reluctance and made the happy decision to find out what I was missing. (Others had the same thought. By December 27, 2015, My Brilliant Friend had soared to second place on the Times trade paperback bestseller list).
My Brilliant Friend is about the lifelong friendship between Elena and Lila, two girls growing up in 1950’s Naples. In childhood and adolescence, they form a bond so strong that it survives their jealousies, rivalries, cruelties, and betrayals. Elena is tentative, engaged in a constant battle to prove her self-worth as a bespectacled girl who attends high school in a neighborhood where scarcely anyone, let alone a girl, finishes elementary school. Her self-esteem is tethered to her academic success. Her passivity and passive-aggressiveness steer her away from the neighborhood’s inherent violence and prompt her to sugarcoat even the most negative experiences. Lila is bold in both senses, courageous and impudent. She embraces violence and threats, hurls cruelties at those who love her, is an artist at manipulation, and lacking an outlet, unleashes her suppressed creativity in sporadic and powerful bursts. On the eve of her wedding, Lila refers to Elena as her “brilliant friend.” I’m not sure Elena is to whom the title refers. This friendship reminds you that love encompasses both loyalty and torment and that there’s no such thing as a simple relationship.
As indelible as the Elena-Lila relationship is the setting against which it takes place. The neighborhood is defined by poverty, ignorance, and the omnipresent threats and violence wielded by fathers and brothers and that find a counterpart in the constant female squabbling. Old cleavages from the Second World War remain, and the Camorra, the Naples mob, casts its shadow. As the girls step outside the neighborhood, they learn about class distinctions, Communism, and the difference between wealth and breeding. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church makes only the smallest cameo.
Two mysteries enshroud the Neopolitan Novels. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym of an unidentified writer. No one even knows the gender of the author, who conducts only written interviews. Here’s a link to one published in Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/elena-ferrante-interview-the-story-of-the-lost-child
The concept of a writer eschewing credit is as refreshing as it is incomprehensible.
Also unusual is the fact that My Brilliant Friend was not a bestseller when it first appeared in the United States. Its trajectory raises questions about book critics and editors as gatekeepers. It seems that they are like DJ’s choosing what songs to play.
I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a relationship like Elena and Lila’s, let alone such a fraught setting. I’ve sometimes felt possessiveness. At times I’ve wished that I had the charisma and polish of some of my friends, but I’ve learned that slow and steady is ok too and that everyone comes with gifts and baggage of his own. Share your thoughts about friendship and My Brilliant Friend.