My Brilliant Friend. Book One: Childhood, adolescence
By Elena Ferrante
“From one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, comes this ravishing and generous hearted novel about a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Through the lives of Elena and Lila, Ferrante gives her readers the story of a neighborhood, a city and a country undergoing momentous change.”
The first of a four part series, My Brilliant Friend tells the story of Elena and Lila, two young girls growing up in a poor section of Naples in the 1950’s. The childhood of these female protagonists is grim, poverty stricken and casually violent. This is a culture of gangs, family loyalties and desperation to escape the lives of ones parents. Elena and Lila are children who meet in the first grade, to Elena the narrator; Lila is brilliant, fearless and bad. Together they share a love of words and become collaborators on stories that they write to make their fortune. The story is told through the prism of the girls’ relationship. This book spans the years from first grade till Lila’s marriage at the age of 16. Throughout those years though Lila is the leader and dominant force of the two, the power balance shifts due to family status and economics. Both girls are urged by their teacher to continue on from primary school to middle school; however it is only Elena whose parents permit this.
Though the focus of the novel is the relationship between the two friends, it also depicts the post war environment of Naples as being as claustrophobic and narrow minded as a small town. There are 5 or so families in the neighborhood whose lives intersect each other; their friendships, love affairs and vendettas comprise most of the action of the story. Another observation that illustrates the characters insularity is that although Naples is a coastal city and the ocean is no more than an hour’s drive from their neighbourhood, Elena and Lila have never seen the ocean.
The novel also shows us how restrictive opportunities for women were in this culture and at this time in history, this is a good 50 years after the First World War as depicted in “The Summer before the War” and still little has changed. When Lila is forbidden by her parents to continue her education she throws herself into working in her father’s shoe making business. However this too is not encouraged; the only role for her is making an early and “good” marriage.
Much has been written about Elena Ferrante author of this and the three subsequent “Neapolitan Novels”. She is famously publicity shy will give only limited interviews and does not do book tours. Despite this policy My Brilliant Friend has become an international best seller and literary sensation. The novel is so passionate and intensely detailed, with such an intimate examination of the characters outer and inner lives that it succeeds on its own terms without the usual hoopla that often accompanies famous authors.
1. Throughout the novel, Lila earns her reputation as “the misfit,” while Elena comes to be known as “the good girl.” How do the two live vicariously through one another, and what is it about their differing personalities that make their relationship credible?
2. In what way does the culture Elena and Lila are brought up in shape their choices? Does Lila with her many talents and brilliant mind really want to marry Stefano, or does his money and family pressure feed into this choice?
3. In one of the books memorable incidents, Lila convinces Elena to skip school with her and go to the sea side. Two young girls set out on foot with no money, food or drink to a place that they have never been before. How do you think this chapter at once symbolizes all that is both right and wrong in their lives?