The cover of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend shows a bride in an elegant white gown standing a little behind a man in a dark suit – evidently her groom – and trailed by three young girls in matching fancy dresses. The bride and groom stare out at the sea.
From the cover, you might guess that this is a romantic tale, but despite the fact that this book ends with a wedding, nothing could be farther from the truth. This, the first of Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan novel series, is a gritty story of two women, lifelong friends, that begins with their girlhood in the Naples of the 1950s.
Though there is story enough to hook any reader – and I was hooked from the first page – there is very little in the way of a plot. While the book begins with the disappearance of Lila at sixty-six, that event is not tied up by the end. In fact, the ending – which features both the wedding and at least two betrayals – leaves the reader hanging, or rushing out to find the second book, for the story is far from over. (I’ve put the second book on hold at the library, though I may break down and buy a copy before it comes in.)
There are many things to like about this book, which richly deserves all the praise and notice it is getting. The thing that impressed me the most was that in telling the story of Elena and Lila as young girls, the author only shows what they know at the time.
So they know that their parents do not like Don Achille Carracci, but do not know he is in the Camorra – the Mafia. Nor do they know about the fascists or the effect on their society of the second World War. They are good at their schoolwork, but know nothing of the possibilities of education beyond the primary school. Their awareness of the world around them is that of children.
As they grow up, they learn more, but even though Elena continues on into high school, there are large gaps in what they know about the world. The limits to their lives imposed by tradition, by social class, by gender are many, and yet because they do not know that things could be different, we see those barriers from completely inside their point of view.
This is powerful writing, because the author clearly knows that there is more to the world than what her characters can comprehend, but she does not jump ahead of them. It is a very feminist work that never once uses that word, a strong description of social class that does not apply the usual rhetorical analysis.
One of the blurbs for this book says, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.” Interesting, because I thought of Jane Austen while reading.
As in Austen, this book provides the full experience of women’s lives in a society that finds them of limited value. And though Austen gave at least some of her characters a happy ending, while Ferrante does not (at least in the first book), I did not get as angry while reading My Brilliant Friend as I get with, say, Sense and Sensibility.
That is, I suspect, because I can see Elena and Lila both resisting the strictures of their world. That is, they are angry, so I don’t have to be. I do not think their stories will be ones of conforming to expectations. Lila, after all, has disappeared, and Elena in her sixties is living a different life from the one expected for her as a young woman.
In Austen’s novels, the women’s choices remain limited. There is no where else for them to go.
This work also reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in that it showed me a world that I did not know except in generalities and made me aware of the details of people’s lives. (I also find that true of reading Austen.)
What makes both Adichie’s and Ferrante’s books work is that they tell such deep stories of human lives. This is what realism should do, and both of these authors know how to do it. (Though Lila’s disappearance at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend does hint at a speculative element, at heart this story is brutally real.)
Another aspect of the realism is that Lila and Elena are friends whose relationship transcends any they may have with men along the way. This kind of friendship will feel familiar to many women, despite the cultural differences in their stories.
But they are not always kind to each other. Sometimes they are jealous. Sometimes they avoid each other. That, too, is true of real friendship.
By the way, although Lila at one point calls Elena “my brilliant friend,” I have no doubt that it is Lila that the title refers to. They are both very bright young women, but it is Lila who can teach herself while Elena must study hard in school.
This book will transport you to another world. It’s a harsh one, not one I would want to live in. But spending time in it has expanded my understanding. And that’s one of the things literature is good for.