In brief: The first book in the Neopolitan Novels introduces Elena and Lila, two girls growing up in a poor part of Naples. They are polar opposites who compete against each other, yet somehow they are close friends.
The good: The story enchants you to the point where you can’t think about anything else.
The not-so-good: Tracking down the rest of the books is not a quest for the faint hearted (they are that popular).
Why I chose it: Social media raved about it (and Text Publishing also had a sick note for those suffering from #ferrantefever which was my breaking point)
Translator: Ann Goldstein (from the Italian)
Publisher: Text Publishing
My rating: 10 out of 10
Sometimes I’m late to jump on a bandwagon. I don’t always like to follow the pack and I like to be cautious as to whether said bandwagon is worth catching (for example, I didn’t get stuck into Harry Potter until book 4 was released)! In the case of Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan novels, I can confirm that it is a bandwagon worth jumping on. Every single second of your time reading the first book, My Brilliant Friend will be worth it. Will you come out a better person? I don’t know, but you certainly will be fully in the grasp of Ferrante Fever.
Sometimes books in translation can be a little stilted or awkward for me. I’m never sure whether this is the author’s intent, the culture of the story or just ‘lost in translation’. Ann Goldstein’s translation from Italian to English contains none of this – the story is just as rich, passionate and full of the range of emotions of its protagonists. This book is enchanting, I don’t think I’ve been as wholly taken over by a book since Enid Blyton days. It has a magic touch to it – somehow all the characters come to life as rich as if they were before you. The story is relatively simple – two girls growing up in a poor area of Naples in the late 1950s but at the same time it is complex with the relations between families, friends and how to get ahead.
Book 1 tackles the childhood and adolescence of Elena, who tells the story and Lila (aka Raffaella or Lina). There is a prologue that gives the barest of hints as to what is to come as adults for the pair, but the focus is on their childhood. Elena and Lila become friends after Lila drops Elena’s doll into the cellar. It seems like a strange start to a friendship, but this is no ordinary one. Already the pair are in a relationship that is part destructive, yet will go on to spur both of them to aim higher, do better. This continues until the end of elementary school, where it is decided that Elena will continue her education; Lila becomes lost without education and firm direction, working in the family business and secretly studying. As the girls grow into teenagers, they are driven further apart, yet come together when solace and inspiration is needed. Elena’s story becomes painful at times as she becomes more and more different to her idol Lila – she’s not pretty, she needs glasses and she feels increasingly awkward. There’s the inner turmoil where she considers how far she needs to go with a boy to ‘match’ Lila and the painful experience with the father of the boy she desires.
The entire story reads as though it was Elena Ferrante telling her story. The author is reclusive, nobody knows who she is (or if she is a man, a group of writers or her history). So it’s somewhat contradictory at how open the story is. Elena the character tells it all, there are no secrets, allusions or mysterious symbolism – what you read is what you get. Of course, you can read into the story and what the characters symbolise deeply: why is Lila’s brother Nino such a hot-headed, lazy idiot? What is the role of Donato Sarretore as poet, conductor and alleged friend/lover of widows? Are Lila and Elena symbolic of Italy?
The emotion conveyed is raw and untempered. Lila and Elena are blissfully unaware of their poverty until later in their teens (possibly, Lila is never aware of it at all). Life without fripperies, without new clothes is usual to them. When the local bullies, the Solara brothers, get a car, it’s an event in the neighbourhood. Likewise, beatings are nothing unusual – the children fight each other after seeing their father hit their mother. Elena has never even left the neighbourhood (except for one fanciful journey with Lila) before high school. Nothing is sugar-coated, everything is blunt on the page.
It’s perhaps this simplicity that makes My Brilliant Friend so engaging. It doesn’t pretend to be anything fancy, but a story. It is one that is everlasting and will take over your thoughts while you’re reading it and beyond. I enjoyed it so much that I will need to read the other three books in the series very, very soon.