Elena Ferrante sure did hit the headlines this year when the unveiling of her penname (see previous post) was met with distaste and, in some cases, outrage, by the literary community. My resultant interest in her series, the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’, however, only goes to show that no publicity is bad publicity- in the aftermath of this controversy, I found myself dying to read it. This holiday I finally had the opportunity to jump aboard the Elena Ferrante bandwagon by reading My Brilliant Friend.
In fact, it was after having spent two days visiting Naples this January when I suddenly realised, ecstatic, that there would be no better time to start reading Elena Ferrante than now, with the glittering bay of Naples and the Castel dell’Ovo still fresh in my memory.
Of course, the glorious tourist sites that marked my trip to the Italian coast this winter didn’t feature too heavily in My Brilliant Friend. Rather, the neighbourhood where the book is set is a rough area quite far inland from Naples’ classic landmarks. Such is the exclusivity of this poor 1950s neighbourhood, the two young protagonists do not even see the sea until they are teenagers.
The town is one of basic trades and traditional values; there is the grocer’s, the shoemaker’s, the pastry shop, and the carpenter’s. Children grow up mastering the trades of their parents. There is a huge array of characters (so many, in fact, that there is a short glossary of families at the start of the book) and they are all interwoven into a truly fascinating tapestry of personal relationships. The inescapable balancing act of the community is not only influenced by the progression of day to day life- who’s dating who, who was heard fighting last night and who’s struggling to get by- but also by an inescapable past that looms over the neighbourhood and every family in it. The ghosts of fascism and the second world war are difficult ignore in a tight-knit community where family feuds can live on for decades.
Lila and Lenu, the protagonists of My Brilliant Friend, are two girls of the same age who meet in school. We follow their growth from children to young women, and, as such, their journey as they gradually learn the nuances and the unfortunate realities of life in such a town. Coming of age in a violent and unpredictable neighbourhood is not without its risks.
What I can certainly say of My Brilliant Friend is that the setting and its characters are complex, rich in detail and totally believable. Ferrante has pulled off the art of character development with a real flair and put put these two struggling heroines into an utterly believable world that is full of love and yet simultaneously fraught with tension.
The real point of contention is that Lenu continues school and Lila does not. This fact is established early on in the book, but goes on the shape the lives of the two girls in very marked ways. It is incredibly sad to see how this one privilege causes such a distinct transformation with regard to the paths of these two girls. Their friendship survives- thrives, even- but this differentiation rears its head and causes pain unexpectedly throughout the novel.
Given the hype, I did struggle more than I was expecting to get into the story. It builds very slowly and Ferrante does not provide us with a classic narrative framework- that is, an introduction, a problem that must be solved and then its dramatic resolution. Rather, she is building a world for us to get lost in layer by layer. Problems arise that are not resolved, but that only increase in their complexity throughout the book. People grow wiser and more tormented by the ugly horrors of their neighbourhood, which, as characters grow older and harsher in their outlook, only become uglier.
The book is certainly a ‘slow burner’ and if I were to rate the book as a single entity, I might not be so quick to layer on the praise. It was only about half-way through the book that I felt in any way intrigued to read on. As a series of four, however, I feel confident that the series is going nowhere but up. The novel finishes absolutely fantastically, with a sequence of subtle events that are truly climactic in a way that only an accomplished writer that has really taken the time to develop their narrative world can achieve.
I would not, therefore, recommend My Brilliant Friend in and of itself, necessarily. I can admit, however, that I am excited to read the rest of the series and that this excitement has been generated by the careful and expert execution of this initial novel in the series. Perhaps my expectations are dangerously high, but given the outstanding reception of Elena Ferrante and this much loved series, I feel more than confident that these expectations will be met.