Author: Elena Ferrante Series: The Neapolitan Novels #1 Genre: Historical Fiction Release Date: October 19, 2011 Book Length: 331 pages Publisher: Penguin Random House Review: 4/5
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense and generous hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists.
The phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover” plays its role heavily here. If it weren’t for me having watched an episode of the show based on this book first, I never would have even given it second glance because of how unappealing the cover is to me.
The book transported me to Italy – the little Neapolitan town where Elena and Lina grew up appeared in my mind as if I were recounting it from my own memory rather than from the descriptions of a character in a novel. As someone whose familial roots are in Italy, and who has seen firsthand what the culture there is like between people in small towns, this hit the nail on the head. The gossip, violence, comradery – it all was very accurately portrayed. If there is one thing I didn’t like though, it’s that there were so many families, and so many characters in each family, that even by the end, I had trouble figuring out who was who, and to what family they belonged! Nonetheless, it did a great job of capturing what a small town in Italy is like for the reader – at least from what I can say of my own observations.
I really enjoyed reading about the childhood and adolescence of these two girls, and how their relationship blossomed and changed throughout the years. Although both very smart, I liked the contrast in character between the two – Elena being polite, meek, and a studious “good girl”, while Lina was the rebellious, headstrong, and mischievous one. Going into it, I had the impression that the ‘brilliant friend’ was referring to Lina, as Elena is the narrator of the story, so it surprised me when Lina referred to Elena as her ‘brilliant friend’ at one point in the novel. I guess, in a sense, each one is the other’s brilliant friend, but for different reasons. Both of these girls hold the friendship and opinion of the other in high regard, and although neither outright admit to it, it is clear that there is a power struggle within their relationship. At times, this greatly annoyed me, and it felt like their relationship was based solely on these little silent competitions: who moved on to middle school; who got their period first; who was prettier; who got a boyfriend first; who got married first. Admittedly though, this narrative is also what kept things interesting.
This book definitely ended on a cliff-hanger, and in a very odd spot too! I am very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series to find out where their story takes them.