"My Brilliant Friend" - a compelling and absorbing Neapolitan novel

Since I’m in Italy, it seems fitting to be reading Italian literature, and so my latest book review is of the wonderful, and most compelling, story entitled “My Beautiful Friend” by the extremely accomplished author Elena Ferrante.  The first of a four-part series, they follow the intimate and passionate friendship of two young girls, Lila and Lena, growing up in an impoverished neighourhood of Naples in the aftermath of World War II.

my brilliant friend book cover.jpg

Even so, their friendship is never plain sailing - it is fraught with competition

Lena is bright (and encouraged by her parents to continue with her schooling) whereas Lila (who is gifted to the point where her powers are almost supernatural!) is not as fortunate and finds herself borrowing books from the library, to read after her labours in the workplace.

The novel also touches upon the brutality of life in a rough, poor, Naples neighourhood and the macho culture that accompanied it - men fighting for their ‘honour’.

One particular line that sticks in my mind is "I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence."

Now having sold over 2 million copies in North America alone, ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is a coming-of-age story, and the kind of novel that - once you’ve begun it - you’re going to want to race through it.  

Hold back through - please - because this is a story that needs to be savoured.

The prose is elegant yet forthright - Ferrante depicts, in fine detail, the poverty and hardship of this working-class neighbourhood as much as she does the friendship (the intense and loving friendship) between the two girls.  

One could argue that the novel is also about a friendship born of necessity - that Lena and Lila have a need for each other that is quite profound (for many reasons, which will become clear as you read the novel).


Photo courtesy of Mario Cattaneo

Photo courtesy of Mario Cattaneo

As for the author herself, her identity is such a closely-guarded secret (only her publisher knows the truth) that it has even led some to speculate that Elena is actually a man, writing under a female ‘nom de plume.’

All we really know of Ms Ferrante is via her translator, Ann Goldstein, the New Yorker editor who first began learning Italian after she decided she wanted to read Dante in the original.

Image courtesy of HBO and Sky

Image courtesy of HBO and Sky

Ms Goldstein (who, by the way, is a marvellous translator) has never met the author and states that the Ms Ferrante’s decision to remain a private figure (and therefore continue leading a ‘normal life’) is something she respects entirely.

By the end of ‘My Brilliant Friend’ you are sure that far more awaits the two heroines - but as to what that is, we have no idea.  In which directions will they travel? Will they flee Naples or remain in the confines of the neighbourhood for decades to come?  Will they remain close or drift apart, after Lila marries? As much a portrait of southern Italy in the 1950’s (a society on the verge of great transformation) as of female friendship, this novel will carry you along from the first to the last page.  And the good news is that once you’ve finished, you don’t need to agonise about the mystery of their respective fates - just go out and buy the next in the set!

Highly recommended (I’ll watch the HBO series soon, and only hope that it’s a fraction as good as this novel). Here’s a look at the trailer…