My Brilliant Friend is an engrossing story of friendship and friction set in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Italy’s Naples in the 1950s.
Schoolgirls Elena and Lila have an intense connection which is solidified by a number of daring escapades such as their bold confrontation with maligned local businessman and “the ogre of fairytales” Don Achille.
While opposites in many ways – narrator Elena is conventionally pretty and good, while her skinny, plainer friend can’t resist testing boundaries and people – the two girls are bonded by a shared intelligence and thirst for knowledge. This is also what tears them apart in a time and place when children, especially girls, were not encouraged to continue their schooling.
Ferrante paints a vivid picture of the insular, often violent world in which Elena and Lila live. Long-running rivalries are fuelled by poverty and envy, with suspicion, fear, secrets and resentment creating a swirl of drama and tension.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” writes Elena. “Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
As the girls near womanhood, each tries to find love and forge a future amid limited opportunities and family demands, resulting in fresh conflict and an ever-growing sense of danger. Sometimes, compromising principles can seem like the only means of survival; allies and enemies can be difficult to tell apart; souls can be sold for the price of a pair of shoes.
Ferrante, described by her publisher as one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, shines a harsh spotlight on the nature of female friendship, which can be joyful, supportive, painful and oppressive – sometimes all at once. My Brilliant Friend also touches on weighty issues such as the collision of political ideals, gender and class. Throughout, Elena’s voice oscillates between pragmatism, optimism and apprehension.
This is such an engrossing, involving story that the novel’s sucker-punch ending leaves readers eager for more – which we now have in the form of a follow-up book The Story of a New Name, released this month. Just make sure you read My Brilliant Friend first.
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