My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Admittedly, I’m a bit late to the party with My Brilliant Friend by Italian author Elena Ferrante; it was originally published back in 2012. Since then, it has sold over 11 million copies worldwide and been made into a successful series for HBO, scripted entirely in Italian.
The story follows two girls, Elena and Lila, as they navigate life from childhood to adolescence, growing up in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples.
Lila is fearless, tough, rebellious and unpredictable. At school, her brilliance and ferocious intelligence soon becomes apparent. By contrast, Elena is quiet, reflective, insecure and diligent. They fascinate and depend on each other, but never in equal measure. Their friendship is complex; layered with love and rivalry; a constant desire to be doing as well, or better, than the other.
‘I devoted myself to studying and to many things that were difficult, alien to me, just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.’Elena, My Brilliant Friend (page 47)
Both girls have an enormous appetite for learning, knowledge and discovery. However, there is little opportunity for smart girls to escape their oppressive lives in poor, post-war Naples, and the odds are greatly stacked against them. Dangers, hardships and violence permeate their city. Family rivalries and shifting alliances are common place, as is the looming threat of the Camorra – an Italian Mafia-type organisation established in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital.
While Elena goes on to study at middle school (an opportunity her mother resents), Lila must withdraw from school and instead begins work at her father’s shoe shop, where she is ambitious and determined. Elena and Lila’s paths diverge, but their intense friendship cannot be replaced or replicated, and so their destinies are seemingly entwined.
My Brilliant Friend is without nostalgia and sentimentality and is a timeless portrayal of female friendships. The setting of post-war Naples makes it a gritty, complex, coming-of-age story.
My Brilliant Friend is Book One of the four book series known as the ‘Neopolitan Novels’ by Elena Ferrante. Together, the four novels capture the lives and friendship of Elena and Lila from young girls through to women in their 60s.
If you haven’t already read My Brilliant Friend, pour yourself a Chianti, settle in and immerse yourself in this honest, heart-breaking and beautiful story of two brilliant friends.
Published 2012 by Europa Editions, 336 pages.