Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Anybody in the contemporary literary scene has heard the name of Elena Ferrante. This past week, as a first act of vacation, I immersed myself in the first of her four Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend.

The story is narrated in semi-omniscient first person by Elena Greco, a young girl growing up amidst the violence and misery of a small town in 1950’s Naples. Setting served as an influential and interesting driving force of the plot, as the acute and insightful descriptions of how poverty shaped people reminded one of the wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Evidently, social struggle is a central trope of the novel, but comes second to the tense whirlpool of Elena’s friendship with Lila, the magnetic and intelligent classmate.

The novel begins with a phone call from Lila’s son to an older Elena, announcing that Lila has disappeared after essentially erasing her physical existence. Elena, in reaction, recounts her and Lila’s intertwined tale, fighting against Lila’s self-destruction. She recounts how she met the remarkably bright Lila in elementary school and was fascinated by her. This fascination continues as their relationship grows both close and fraught as a result of shared experiences in the neighborhood: love, sex, local politics, and social struggles. The book spans the period from the first grade, when they meet, to the age of sixteen, when Lila is married while Elena continues her education.

I am very critical of contemporary books. With the extraordinary tradition of literature we have built up to the year 2017, we should be reaching more fabulous heights. Unfortunately, books nowadays generally fall flat in the face of the twentieth century, for instance. It is not that books are poorly written per se,  but rather that they have begun to adopt the superficial and banal tone of our lives. This is why I am not hopeful for the books of the twenty first century, though I hope to be wrong, and cling to the idea of a desperately needed Romantic revival in the future.

That said, I have mixed feelings about Ferrante’s work, which is much adored at the moment. There were things I liked: the assured tone of a woman looking back on life and analyzing her past self objectively, for instance. The poignancy of childhood and the awkwardness of adolescence were well defined, at times even elegant. I also enjoyed the setting – it seems that every film and book about Italy is based in Sicily, so it is nice to see another side of the country. I disliked the emphasis on petty feelings and would have liked some deeper reflection on what Elena was feeling. Particularly bothersome was the fact that Elena’s fascination with Lila seems fairly unjustified: Lila is meant to be ‘brilliant’ but simply comes across as cold, detached, and not easy to empathize with.

As a result, I don’t know that I would continue to read Ferrante were it not for the dreadful cliffhanger that the book concludes with (and this is a personal preference, too: I do not like books that cannot stand on their own and I’m sure others feel much the same). We shall see: I may change my ambivalent opinion into a more positive one if curiosity eventually triumphs.

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