Just like the book I previously read and reviewed on this website, I found this one in the second hand bookshop and again, I did not regret it. Elena Ferrante and her Naponeapolitan novels have been at the back of my mind for years, but I never really got around to reading and revieving them, until this book. I am glad I waited a bit with them and I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘My Brilliant Friend’ in translation by Ann Goldstein.
The first novel is set in a small, poor neighborhood of Naples. The story is told by Elena as she remembers her childhood and adolescence in this environment. The most prominent figure, though is not Elena, but her best friend Lina (or Lila as Elena calls her) whose story becomes somewhat tragic. The writing style is very descriptive and readable, and a huge part of it lies in the success of the translator to English who captured it brilliantly. Although this is a bit of a long read, I managed to read it in a few days as the story flows in a way that feels natural and organic. Ferrante captures the voice of a grown woman remembering her childhood with different eyes quite well. Often times, Elena the narrator will admit to the readers that she does not fully remember something or does not remember all the details of an event, which felt logical in this scenario. However, she knows her friends and people around her well, so she can indeed tell a compelling story about regular people.
In addition to Elena and Lina whose tremulous friendship is the center of the novel, there are a lot of characters that make up their neighborhood. At the start of my edition, there is actually a list of all the characters that will show up, and I was quite grateful for that as I frequently had to turn back and check to understand who Elena was talking about, especially as some of the names were quite similar. The relationships between families and people in those families are quite complicated and came from time before Elena and Lina, but they do affect their lives significantly. A lot of the book is dedicated to the differences in wealth between families that are apparent, even though some of them have gotten their money through nefarious actions. In this book, families are not always a haven as Elena often writes about her mother’s belittling or borderline abusive behaviour towards her, with short snippets of gentleness. The situation is similar in other families as well, where the good standing in the neighborhood is more important that anything else.
This is also the world is which men have all or least a huge majority of the power. Lina’s intelligence and strong personality do not really mean much at the end and does not guarantee her happiness or success, quite the opposite actually. Just like all women in the book, she is controlled by men in her life, father, brother and later husband. Her dreams and desires get pushed to the side to keep peace and not rock the boat too much. On the other hand, Elena’s success in school and her desire to discuss other things that are not directly related to the neighborhood, push her more and more away from the only place she calls home and from her friend, Lina.
A lot of time and space in ‘My Brilliant Friend’ was dedicated to describing the growingly complex relationship between Elena and Lina and how it affects Elena. Her constant attempts to be smarter, more beautiful, more successful and overall superior to Lina in her eyes and eyes of others around them shows the extent of her thinking about Lina that at times becomes borderline obsessive. Whatever she does, she always compares herself to Lina. I really liked this depiction of a friendship in which it is clear that the two girls and later women love each other, but are always in competition with one another and try to achieve more. Jealousy that Elena tries to hide and her feelings that she will always play the second fiddle to her friend are described really well. Lina is described to us as this almost feme fatale character, but given that it came from the perspective of Elena, this is not surprising at all. It is clear from the way in which Elena writes and remembers Lina and their childhood that her feelings about it are still mixed and thus are reminiscent of what life really is. There were many instances in which Lina was the one to push and help Elena, as well as many in which it was clear that Lina was also harboring some jealousy and resentment for Elena and the opportunities that she did not have and Elena did. Their friendship felt really real and authentic and not presented in any kind of sugarcoated way.
The novel covers a lot more themes and discussions and some of them do come with a heavy trigger warning, so be aware of that as well. However, I will not delve deeper into that as it would step into the spoilers category and I do not want to spoil this wonderful novel for you. All I will say is that I did not know at first that the four books in Naponeapolitan series are tightly connected and therefore the cliffhanger at the end left me a bit surprised. However, I am definitely going to read the other books in the series as Ferrante has transported me into this world and really made me care about these characters. She has set everything up for a great sequel, and I am very excited to read ‘The Story of a New Name’ and the following installments.
At the end, I scored this 4/5 simply because of the abundance of characters and necessity of coming back to index of characters to be able to follow the plot and the story. That being said, I really enjoyed this tale of female friendship and their turbulent lives and could definitely recommend it.
Did you read this book? Did you read anything else by Elena Ferrante? Let me know!