My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

One day the narrator, Elena, is telephoned by the son of her dear friend, Lila (Lina to everyone else), and told that her friend has disappeared without trace. Now in their sixties, the true story of Elena and Lila begins in their childhood and before all trace of Lila can be lost, Elena takes it upon herself to tell the story of their friendship, the story of Lila, as closely as she can.

The tale that unfolds is gripping, eloquent, and beautifully evokes the intensities of childhood and adolescence where one believes true knowledge and feeling are only things that young people can really access. They are the story of the world, the characters of novels; adults, old people, have had their time and have bound themselves in ways which give them no room to manoeuvre and given that Elena and Lila come from a poor area of Naples, manoeuvring, escaping, changing, is everything.

Lila is fascinating because she observes, questions, and formulates her own opinions. Quite simply, Lila is brilliant in the way that most of want to be. She has a force that draws people in, that demands attention and devotion regardless of her often less than nice behaviour. She drives others, the narrator included, to behave in certain ways. Elena in particular strives to be good enough, to know enough, to converse as eloquently, in order to remain Lila’s friend because Lila is more than an intelligent, kindred spirit, she has what Elena considers to be a destiny. Elena feels Lila is going somewhere and Elena wants to go somewhere too, even if, ultimately, that means they go in different directions.

Both girls are learning to navigate the adult world. The novel charts both Elena and Lila as they journey towards an awakening of self-awareness, a journey as much about disappointment as fulfilled expectation, and it is a journey well worth reading.

In some ways, even though the outcomes of their early choices suggest their onward journeys, I wish there were a third section that took Elena and Lila into adulthood. I have no doubt that the story would be written well. Perhaps, however, this novel is not about what happens once you are bound, but the memory of that youthful energy and desire for change. And yet the novel opens with Lila, in her sixties, performing the most amazing change of all: disappearing. Energy and desire, emotional intensity, these aren’t only for the young.

I also wish that the magical real elements of Lila were explored further. Though again, it could be argued that the magic Elena describes is a by-product of intense feeling, an expression of the fullest living of experience, a kind of hyper-real, how wonderful to feel that. Why not explore that further?

Whatever else I may want from My Brilliant Friend, you can’t read it without being reminded of that feeling of wonder. Even when that feeling expresses the most painful isolation, there is within it a suggestion of progress, an upward trajectory that the narrator exposes and exploits. We are the heroines of our own narratives, but how often do we step back, observe and take charge? What does it really mean to come of age?

I would recommend My Brilliant Friend. Don’t be put off by the cover. Yes, there is a wedding and shoes are important to the plot, but this is chic lit only in the sense that it is literature written by a woman whose protagonists are women; this is chic lit in its purest, most relevant, and critical form. Austen and Duras would sit happily on the same bookshelf with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Next week I’m reading Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, followed by The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Do keep your comments and suggestions coming.

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