Saturday, August 18, 2018

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I have a cast of friends who populate independent bookstores.  These are friends to guide me to obscure novels and open a whole new world of new adventures.  An Inkwood Bookshop in Tampa and her sister's shop in Haddonfield, New Jersey have been wonderful sources.  It was a trip to New Jersey that led me to Elena Ferrante and her masterpiece the four "Neapolitan Novels."  Book One is titles My Brilliant Friend.  I already have the next three books in the series, and I can't wait to get into the three remaining volumes, which are sprawling, insightful, and a fantastic read.

Elena is a peculiar writer.  She disdains meeting her followers, and she avoids conferences, signings, and most attempts to uncover her real name.  Recently, someone tried to reveal her real name.  When I started to read the essay, I put it away.  Her story is magnificent, and if she wishes to remain anonymous, I will not be one to reveal her secret.

The story begins with two friends, Elena and Lila.  Both live in Naples with families on the edge of poverty.  Lila appears to be the better student, but she opts into an early marriage giving up her studies.  Elena is envious of Lila, and she struggles to surpass her friend.  Book one of this story carries the tale to the girls’ 16th birthday.  The friendship of the two girls wavers back and forth.  When Lila decides to marry, she asks Elena for help, much to the consternation of the bride’s family.

Ferrante’s style is detailed and wonderfully adept at describing these characters.  Elena writes, “Lila knew how to read and write, and what I remember of that gray morning when the teacher revealed it to us was, above all, the sense of weakness the news left me with.  Right away, from the first day, school had seemed to me a much nicer place than home.  It was the place in the neighborhood where I felt safest, I went there with excitement.  I paid attention to the lessons, I carried out with the greatest diligence everything I was told to carry out, I learned.  But most of all I liked pleasing the teacher, I liked pleasing everyone.  At home I was my father’s favorite, and my brothers and sister, too, loved me.  The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course.  It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.  I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me.  Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking” (44-45).

Having to deal with the parents, friends, and family, while managing her friendship with Lila, was daunting.  Elena’s ability to handle all this requires an amazing array of characters and events.  She did all this while studying her lessons and achieving the highest scores in all her subjects.  A comprehensive set of family trees proved quite helpful, especially since there were a few similar names and nicknames.  A number of writers have labeled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend her masterpiece, and I am in complete agreement with that judgment.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/29/18

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