My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante. New York: Europa, 2012.
Childhood memories are often dominated by someone like Lila – the one who excels in every subject, the one who throws rocks at bullies, the one who cares nothing about what others think of her including her teachers, the one who takes her best friend’s hand and leads her on big adventures. On the outskirts of Naples, Italy following the Second World War, a brazen friend like Lila can help a timid girl navigate the domestic complexities of her working-class neighborhood and dream about a life beyond the piazza.
Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym of the unknown author) draws perhaps from her (or his) own experiences growing up in post-war Italy to pen the four novels that follow the coming-of-age lives of the narrator, mild-mannered Elena Greco, and her courageous best friend, Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the “Neapolitan Quartet” and vividly captures the personality of a community through the antics of children; much like Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. From the neighborhood ogre Don Achille, whose presence looms over the novel, to the mad widow, Melina Cappuccio, to the handsome yet cruel sons of the neighborhood bar and pastry shop, Marcello and Michele Solara, Ferrante draws the reader into the tapestry of a story where family poverty and plenty live side by side.
“Our world was full of words that killed,” Elena ruminates. “Croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”
The central struggles in the novel center around two factors that determine the girls’ futures – education and money. While Elena and Lila begin as equals as they play with their dolls and enter first grade, it is soon evident that as the daughter of a city hall porter, Elena has more advantages than Lila, whose father is a lowly shoemaker. Elena’s parents agree to pay for a tutor so that she can excel on the entrance exam for middle school, while Lila’s parents refuse the expenditure, feeling that it is time for her to work in the family store. In the years to follow, Elena struggles with her studies and worries about puberty, while Lila embraces shoe design and the growing advances of young men, especially handsome Marcello Solara and the upwardly-mobile Stefano Carraci. Struggle seems bred into the girls since they see so much of it around them. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they make it difficult for us,” Elena explains.
Adding to their struggles is their gender. As was often the case for females in the 1950’s, both girls gradually realize how dependent their lives are on the fortunes and misfortunes of men, especially if they wish to escape the confines of their neighborhood. Escape is, indeed, a key theme to the story. Chapter One begins with the adult Elena learning that her old friend Lila has disappeared from her home in Naples – a feat that the young Lila often expressed: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear.” The final chapter of the story shows the beginning steps Lila is willing to take on her transformation journey.
Elena’s telling the story of their friendship from its inception is her way of recreating what has long since disappeared through the years – two girls who once were inseparable.
My Wine Recommendation
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