Have you ever had a friend who seemed effortlessly brilliant, talented and successful in every endeavor, an attention magnet who intimidates just about everyone? I had a friend like this a number of years ago, and perhaps that’s why I loved this book so much and look forward to the next two volumes. Set in a small town outside Naples in the 1950s, My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena Greco, friend to the fearless Lila Cerullo. The story begins in current time, with Lila’s adult son Rino ringing up Elena, frantic because he cannot find his mother. Elena is both unsurprised and unconcerned as her thoughts roll back in time to her childhood and teen years in 1950s Italy. This novel is brutally honest in its depiction of small town Italian life after WWII: violence, poverty, class division, and sexism are prominently on display and provide the backdrop for the friendship that develops between Elena and Lila.
From the outset, when they are about 6 years old, the pattern of the relationship between the two characters is set: Lila is the more dominant friend and Elena the compliant one. After an incident in which they throw each others’ dolls down a grate, Lila insists that they must confront the most hated man in the neighborhood, Don Achille, to get them back. And thus is their friendship cemented. At school, Elena distinguishes herself as a hardworking good student, while Lila is something of a troublemaker. Yet, it becomes clear that Lila is quite intelligent when she chooses to show it. She can do complicated math in her head, write fanciful stories and draw beautifully. While most children end their education by the age of 12, the local teacher recommends that both girls take the test for middle school. Elena’s parents eventually concede, but Lila’s parents, the local cobblers, refuse to pay for her to continue. As Elena attends classes, Lila helps her parents at home and, alongside her older brother Rino, in the shop. She designs an extraordinary pair of shoes which she and her brother secretly construct, and she reads everything she can get at the local library. Lila manages to keep up and even exceed Elena’s level of learning on her own, at least until Elena enters high school.
While Elena sometimes feels pangs of jealousy and self-doubt because of Lila’s effortless achievement, her growing beauty, and her long list of admirers, Elena is a devoted friend, and Lila seems to need her friendship, too. Elena admires Lila’s talents and expects great things from her. She seems to think that having a friend like Lila can help Elena achieve her own dreams of not turning into her mother and moving away from the town. Elena wishes to be a writer herself; she thinks back to a childhood story that Lila wrote with admiration and is equally awed to discover that a former neighbor, Donato Sarratore, has become a published poet. Elena crosses paths with Sarratore’s handsome son Nino at high school and develops strong feelings for him, as well as admiration for his intelligence.
Nino has something that’s eating him inside like Lila, and it’s a gift and a suffering; they aren’t content, they never give in, they fear what is happening around them….
One of the themes that recurs in this novel is about the sins of the fathers and those of the sons. Nino, Lila, and a couple of other friends in their small town seem to know more about politics than Elena and the others, and they are more willing to talk about it than their parents. They are privy to information about the conduct of local families during the war — those who were fascists, or enriched themselves at the expense of neighbors or supported the monarchy. Is it possible to break the cycle of silence and complicity, which seems to be Lila’s view, or must one simply make a clean break and create a new life away from it all (Elena)? At the end of this novel, part one of the trilogy, Lila has made a huge decision — she will marry at the age of 16, and she believes that she and her husband will show others how to live a new way. At the reception, however, both she and Elena experience revelations that question whether such change is possible. Elena, for her part, sees how alien she has become from her community, how her education and dreams will not allow her to stay here.
With them I couldn’t use any of what I learned every day, I had to suppress myself, in some way diminish myself.
Moreover, Elena has a clear view of the community that she hopes to leave. While Lila’s wedding has drawn everyone together for the event, the camaraderie will not last.
There was a loud din, a drunken gaiety. Young people, adults, children were dancing. But I could feel the reality behind the appearance of festivity.
… it would be the start of hatreds lasting months, years, and offenses and insults that would involve husbands, sons, all with an obligation to prove to mothers and sisters and grandmothers that they knew how to be men.
… The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts.
The final image of the novel leaves the reader hanging, wondering what Lila will do. Surely, something forthright, confrontational, devastating in response to the offense, which I won’t reveal.
Elena Ferrante, which is a nom de plume, has received outstanding reviews for her novels. In recent interviews with the New York Times and The New Yorker, she has discussed both her writing process and her reasons for wishing to maintain anonymity. Whoever she is, this novel really moved me. I loved both Lila and Elena, characters who, in less able hands, might have come off as shallow, mean, and obnoxious instead of real young women with strong desires and determination. I am looking forward to getting to the next two books, which are already published. This would be an excellent choice for summer reading.