“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante (2012) – 331 pages Translated by Ann Goldstein
My enthusiasm for Elena Ferrante grows with each of her books I read. Her writing is a joy to read; it is sharp, affecting, and intelligent. Here she makes a small neighborhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s come vividly alive. There are eight families in the neighborhood, and nearly every individual in each of these families is distinct and is eloquently presented in a few well-chosen words. These characters are not clichés but at least as genuine as the people you and I grew up with.
“My Brilliant Friend” centers on two girls who are friends, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who are seven years old when the novel begins and sixteen by the end of the novel. As friends, they are continually comparing and contrasting themselves with each other. Both realize there is some special quality in the other that brings them together. We see their friendship in the daily life of the neighborhood. We overhear the neighborhood gossip and see close up the romances and feuds. We get a strong sense of these families mixing and fighting. Our narrator is Elena Greco as an adult looking back on her childhood years.
We are there in Naples in the 1950s. In the early years of the decade, Italy is still recovering from World War II, and nearly everyone is poor. As a few years go by, some start to do OK. They own restaurants and grocery stores. Soon some of the guys buy nice cars which attract a lot of attention on the streets.
The pull of sex and the threat of violence are always just near the surface. If one of the neighbor girls gets picked up by a young guy driving a sleek car, her reputation might be ruined, and her father or brothers might be ready to beat up the offending guy. However, as well as the moments of violence, these are young men and women relating to each other in a caring civilized fashion.
A lot of Elena Greco’s own story is about her experiences in school. From the earliest days she excels in school, and although her parents are indifferent, her teachers encourage her to continue on to high school which was unusual for a girl in the 1950s. The fact that the main character’s first name is Elena and the author’s first name is Elena is no mere coincidence. Not least of the many attractions of “Mt Brilliant Friend” is the intelligence and insights of our narrator.
Alberto Moravia has been my favorite Italian novelist for many years. I can never get enough of his novels; I’ve read many of them. I’m developing the same strong appreciation for Elena Ferrante. Perhaps the best news is that “My Brilliant Friend” is the first book in a planned trilogy. Book Ome, “Childhood, Adolesence” is special, and I will be eagerly awaiting Book Two.