Review: ‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante [2012]

My brilliant friend

‘My Brilliant Friend’ is an elegantly written and immersive bildungsroman, featuring in-depth studies of character and development. It follows the childhood and friendship of Elena and Lila, growing up in the slums of Naples. In particular it tells of Elena’s struggle to forge a defined identity, surrounded by personalities stronger than her own. Elena has very little self-confidence or conviction in her own abilities and I felt sorry for her, but a lot of the time I also wanted to shake some sense into her. Get a grip, girl.

 

By contrast Lila is fiery, brilliant and intense; a living and breathing supernova. Although I found the novel a little slow at times it was my intense curiosity to know about Lila that spurred me on. I was also riveted by the power-struggles and the journey undertaken by all of the young people within the novel, not just Elena and Lila. Enzo, Stefano, Rino, Nino, Carmen… All of them were fascinating in their own right and I loved seeing them interact – though the suggestion that they were all following the same paths as their parents and grandparents before them was bittersweet. It is of course heart-breaking to see Lila’s genius wasted, but it is raw and honest; exactly what would have and did so often happen. Coinciding with this was Elena’s jealousy. As soon as she heard that Lila was to be married before her, all of her pride and ambition in school vanished and suddenly her only wish is to ‘catch up’ with her friend and be married herself. This mentality is disturbing and, unfortunately, not uncommon.

The class divide is another discourse within the novel that I particularly enjoyed reading. It is also, evidently, a painful subject for many of the novel’s characters. They all dream of wealth and feel bitterly jealous of their middle-class contemporaries, an interesting dynamic that builds in tension as the plot progresses. The scenes wherein the groups visit the centre of Naples are some of the best in the novel.

There is no big ‘event’, plot twist or mystery in ‘My Brilliant Friend’. It really is telling the honest story of their childhood. In doing so, however, I felt that the plot did become a little repetitive. At times it seems to go around in circles as Elena fixates on her competition with Lila, school, boys, men…It loops around a few times and grows a little stale. I appreciated and adored the graceful prose, I enjoyed the exploration of female experience in the slums of Naples, and these things saved the novel from becoming too boring. It was frustrating, though, to start with Lila and Elena as adults and not reach an explanation by the end of the novel. We are barely a third of the way through the story, as though the narrator insists on writing down every little, sometimes pointless, detail.

I am happy to say that these aspects have not put me off the novel and I still view it as a beautiful piece of writing: sometimes, that is what you have to appreciate and respect, whether the story is to your taste or no. I also still wish to know what happens to Lila, so perhaps Ferrante’s clever trick pays off as I will probably pick up the second and third novels if I come across them in future.

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