Elena Ferrante is already something of an Italian legend. An author said to spurn interviews, her pen name fuelling speculation about her real identity. Her work is said to be autobiographical and already capturing the attention of English readers in a similar way to the autobiographical series of novels by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Being a fan of translated fiction I have had my eye on this series for a while and from the reviews and articles I have read, her work reminds me of Caroline Smailes, whose excellent novel The Drowning of Arthur Braxton was my favourite read in 2013.
In 2012, My Brilliant Friend, the first in the trilogy of Neapolitan novels was translated into English and the two subsequent books The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay were published in 2013 and 2014 consecutively.
The trilogy follows the lives and friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two astute girls from a
downtrodden suburb slum of post war 1950’s & 1960’s Naples, as they navigate the challenges and opportunities necessary to survive and overcome their upbringing.
My Brilliant Friend spans Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence years in their neighbourhood, one where aggression, tension and feuds reign and graduating from school is less of a priority than finding safety and protection from the inhabitants of their immediate environment.
The first pages begin with the naming of characters, a family tree of the neighbourhood, members of each family and their occupations. I often find these lists of characters overwhelming, so ignored them, telling myself, if the book is good, I’ll know who all these characters are by the end. And when I went back to look at it, sure enough, I knew who they all were.
The story then begins with a prologue when the girls are women in their mid-fifties and creates a mystery that won’t be resolved in the first book, as the girls only reach the age of sixteen by its conclusion. It intrigues and teases the reader to continue to read on and discover what it is Elena knows, that no one else does.
“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means.”
Elena is angry and so begins to write this narrative, in an act of revenge-like competitiveness, a trait that has defined her relationship with Lila throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Narrated from the point of view of Elena, the girls first recollection of being together is around the fearful presence of Don Achille, the local grocer whose name is associated with a fairy tale ogre.
In their play, Lila’s actions are always decisive and with bold intent, Elena is less bold, yet more determined, she follows her friend but wishes to surpass her and learns how to cope with the sacrifices necessary to continue to be her friend. Starting with the day Lila dropped her doll through the street grating into a dark underground cellar.
“But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect:
‘You don’t care about her?’
I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarrelling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila.”
After her early years of passing well her exams, there is one year when Elena’s attention strays and as a result her parents are no longer willing to support her in school. They won’t pay for extra tuition but if she studies and resits the exams, they will allow her to continue.
Lila, who never fails, will have to leave school, regardless of her ability, her family isn’t willing to support her education. She has a hunger for education and follows Elena’s progress, increasing her knowledge, surpassing her friend, becoming more like her teacher, though never sitting another exam.
“She had begun to study Greek even before I went to high school? She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”
The book ends with a wedding, the girls paths seem to be heading in different directions, they continue to navigate their lives according to the expectations and threats of their community, yet their paths, in their different ways, potentially hold the seeds of their escape.
My Brilliant Friend is an emotionally charged coming-of-age read and the story held me riveted all the way through from the prologue that isn’t resolved through their early schooldays up to that wedding day.
Ferrante’s depiction of the two girls friendship bristles with vulnerable authenticity, igniting our curiosity in their interactions with their community, making the reader care about what will happen to them all next.
Next Book in the Series: The Story of a New Name (click title to read review)
Buy This Book
Great review !! Now you must read numbers 2 and 3 !!
I most certainly will, I have number 2 ready!
I am so completely spooked (in a good way). I’d been thinking about you, and how I really believe that books are meant to be shared. And all I wanted to do was tell you about this book I’m reading that has me engrossed for many reasons, not the least of which is how an author who eludes her public manages to capture the essence of girls in their complex friendships growing up in a town in Italy. So, you beat me to the punch. I’m so hooked on Elena Ferrante. And I’m utterly delighted to be reading something (almost) simultaneously with you.
Well I guess sometimes it’s not even necessary to write the reviews to have the conversations 🙂 We are already on a similar wavelength of understanding.
I too was engrossed in this book and so pleased there is much more of her work to discover. Nothing like a little author intrigue to provoke interest and especially in a work of translation by a woman, a rare gem indeed!
So glad you enjoyed this one, Claire. I loved the shifts in the dynamics of power between the two lead characters throughout this book; it’s one of the richest, most nuanced portrayals of friendship I can recall from the novels I’ve read. Naples feels very vividly realised, too.
I’m impressed by your reading of this novel without looking at the cast of characters at the front as I found myself referring to it several times!
Thanks Jacqui, I’ve been dying to catch up on this one as you well know after such excellent reviews by the shadow IFFP group and just knew it was going to be a great read. Yes, the power shifts and Elena’s strategies to stay ahead are compelling to observe, I can’t wait to see how they develop.
I didn’t look at the cast of characters at all, it can make the book seem overwhelming, that cast of characters in the front of Wolf Hall has scared me off ever reading that book!
Absolutely, just the way Elena constantly measures herself against Lila. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of the next two books. I’m a bit of an outlier in thinking this, but My Brilliant Friend is my favourite of the three. Others think book two is even stronger, but I loved the freshness of the first one.
I do love an engaging trilogy though few of literary value can keep up the intrigue of the first one, one of may favourites is about the life of Josephine Bonaparte and based on excellent research of her life, a trilogy of journal entries and letters.
Have decided to read Colm Toibin next before gorging on the next Ferrante!
I’d never heard of Elena Ferrante till I read this! Its an old foible of mine but I sometimes get an impression of a book as not for me because I guessing a bit alpha-male and slightly limited on the old emotional intelligence scale! However I’m also intrigued by it, partly because of your review and partly as it comes on the back of one of my staff telling me yesterday that I need to get in touch with my feminine side more often! Hard question I know, but do you think I’m likely to enjoy this?!
I think you’ll enjoy it and funny you mention the impression this book gives, as I read an excellent review of it yesterday by a male whose first paragraph included something like, men, don’t be put off by the cover, this is not “women’s literature”. You’ll be in good reading company if you do pick it up.
In case you are still in any doubt, I just read a translation of an interview with the translator Ann Goldstein in La Repubblica only to discover she was also asked, due to her sensitive listening skills to translate Primo Levi, which she did. Can’t get much better than that. 🙂
That nails it for me as youd expect!!!!
I’ll second that, Jacqui, I had to refer to it as well:)
Pingback: Word By Word - Elena Ferrante
I can’t tell you how much I loved this book – and I’m one of those who think the second is better. Ferrante’s very good at portraying the dynamics of female friendship, I think, and she does so in such ‘plain’ language. She’s an incredible writer.
I enjoyed the second definitely just as much, I think for me it is almost seamless, it becomes one story, I can’t possibly compare by the book. I come to understand more with each one.
I can’t believe the 4th book was published yesterday in Italian and we will have to wait another year before feasting our greedy eyes on it. Had to force myself to stop reading Book 3 this morning, such domestic neglect when there is an unread Ferrante enticing me from the bedside shelf.
Good point. It does feel as though we are living alongside the characters and learning more about them as the series progresses.
Haha! Unbelievably, I haven’t started book three yet, it’s sitting on the top of my pile, taunting me!
Thank you once again, Claire! After reading your review and so many supportive comments of Ferrante’s work, I have just gone to AMZ and downloaded My Brilliant Friend. Please pass along my “bravo” to Allia for her delightful illustration!
Another bravo ~ France must be celebrating Patrick Modiano’s Nobel Prize for Literature today!
I hope you enjoy Elena Ferrante Patricia, I am sure you will be intrigued by the female friendship, given it is one of your strong suits 🙂 I am now into Book 3 and completely addicted and wishing I could read Italian as Book 4 was published yesterday but it will another year before the translated version is published. I hope she becomes as widely read in Canada as elsewhere, it is so great to see a work of translation, written by an author whom no one knows, do so well on literary merit.
I have seen several reviews for books in this trilogy, they do sound wonderful. I like stories of friendship that span many years.
I do hope you’ll pick this one up, I think you will enjoy it, female relationships that evolve through time, but in a neighbourhood we can only imagine through these semi autobiographical pages.
Great review! I really enjoyed this book but have not yet picked up any more books by Ferrante. Hopefully I’ll amend that soon!
I’m onto the second one now and love that there is a substantial backlist. I’ll be reading more of her work for sure.
I loved this book so much that I’m now onto the second in the trilogy. Thank you for the recommendation.
I so glad you enjoyed it, I’ve just started the second book too and its double satisfaction, great characters and fabulous writing, so visual and yet so psychologically penetrating as well!
Pingback: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante tr. By Ann Goldstein … Neapolitan Trilogy Book 2 | Word by Word
Pingback: Literary Blog Hop … Book #Giveaway | Word by Word
Wonderful review, Claire! I loved this part from the passage you have quoted – “I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes” – it is so beautiful and haunting. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the original Italian. it is interesting that the author is reclusive and no one knows anything about her. I have a soft corner for authors who shun publicity and let their work do the talking. I think I will like Elena Ferrante just for that. After reading your review, I want to read the book too. But it looks like all the four books have to be read together. Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful new author.
So good to hear from you Vishy, have missed seeing you round blogoshere. I do hope you find a place for Elena Ferrante, she’s a unique voice on the page. I only just learned that there is a 4th book, it was published in Italian this week, so it will be a while before it is available in English. I hadn’t to expected to read the second so quickly, but with the kindle it is too easy to give in to the impulse! Don’t let the number of books put you off jumping into the first, 🙂
Pingback: Weekly Blogger Round-Up – Wild Mushrooms – Fest Noz in Brittany – Napolitan Novels | Aussie in France
A great review, Claire (comme toujours). I linked into your page from one of my blog posts, after reading a great interview with ferrante in an Italian newspaper. http://kimberlysullivan.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/once-written-a-book-no-longer-needs-it-author-elena-ferrante/
Pingback: Top Reads 2014 | Word by Word
Pingback: Reading Ferrante | Jill's Scene
Pingback: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein | Word by Word
Pingback: Man Booker International Prize 2016 #MBI2016 – Word by Word
Pingback: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein #WITMonth – Word by Word
Pingback: Top Reads 2016 – Word by Word
Pingback: Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein – Word by Word
Pingback: Swing Time by Zadie Smith #ManBookerPrize – Word by Word
Pingback: Top Reads of 2017 – Word by Word
Pingback: A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington – Word by Word
Pingback: Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante – Word by Word
Pingback: Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors – Word by Word
Pingback: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated Ann Goldstein – Word by Word
Pingback: Best Books Read in 2021 Part 2: Top 10 Fiction – Word by Word