My rating: 4 of 5 stars
With the publication of The Story of the Lost Child in 2015, Elena Ferrante completed her quartet of extravagantly praised "Neapolitan Stories." It seemed about time for me to get on board with reading the books to find out what all the shouting was about.
My Brilliant Friend, published in 2012, was the first of the series. It begins with the main protagonist, Elena, learning that her friend Lila has disappeared, not for the first time. Elena and Lila are now in their 60s and Lila's latest disappearance causes Elena to reminisce about their long friendship and the events which marked and shaped their lives. My Brilliant Friend is a telling of those reminiscences.
Elena and Lila grew up on the outskirts of Naples. It is the 1950s when we meet them. Both girls are six years old. They live in a neighborhood where violence is an everyday fact of life. Men settle their inevitable disagreements on the streets with fisticuffs, knives, or guns. Then they go home and continue to take out their anger on their families, beating their wives and children. A child turning up at school with bruises, or a wife doing her shopping with a black and blue face and arms are not instances to be remarked upon - it's just the way of the world.
In this fraught atmosphere where girl children are, on one hand, guarded as priceless treasures - any man or boy who dares to even look at one risks his life - and, on the other hand, seen as totally worthless for anything except as wives, mothers, and household drudges, Elena and Lila dream big dreams. They are both extremely intelligent and competitive with each other. Their competition pushes each of them to try to achieve more both academically and in other areas of life.
This book takes the girls through their teenage years. It is a meditation on the diverging and converging paths of their friendship over the years, and, through their friendship, we see their neighborhood, their society, beginning to change. The girls rely completely on each other even as their paths in life diverge and their destinies become separate in surprising ways. They remain always the best of friends, each knowing that her friend is the one that she can call on if she is in need.
The girls' neighborhood is home to a bewilderingly huge cast of characters. I found it difficult at times to keep all the names straight, but the author has helpfully included a list of the characters and their relationships and interrelationships at the beginning of the novel, so if the reader gets too confused, she can always return to that list.
Some of the major influences on Neapolitan society, as it is explored in this book, are tradition (of course), the Church, and an organized crime group known as the Camorra. All are intertwined and have their role to play in the highly structured and stratified way of life of the inhabitants. Both Elena and Lila, each in her own way, struggle to escape its tentacles.
I begin to see why these books have been so highly praised and I look forward to reading of the further adventures of Elena and Lila in 2016.
If I had to select one word to describe My Brilliant Friend, it would be "fascinating." I was fascinated by the narrative from the first few lines. The plotting is masterful, invisible almost, and the narrative details and characterizations are abundant to the point of being almost overwhelming at times. The reader feels totally immersed in the stultified society in which these two brilliant girls are growing up and trying to find their way. Ferrante's style of writing renders her portrait of the two and their neighborhood in meticulous and unforgettable detail.
My only criticism of the book is that it seemed to lose a bit of its steam toward the end. I think one of the most difficult things for a writer to do is to write a bang-up ending that brings all the loose threads of the narrative together and provides a satisfying conclusion for the reader. In this case, since there are still three more entries in the story of Elena and Lila, perhaps the writer can be forgiven for easing off a bit on the ending.
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