Whatever “it” is, this book has it. Unsurprisingly, The Neapolitan Novels series has been among the much-discussed darlings of the lit fic world — a world that I largely ignore, as I mainly stick to genre. Despite sounding intriguing enough to prompt me to read it, I still knew very little about it. And so, Elena Greco and Lila Cerrullo came to me freshly conceived, raw and open and complex, out of their run-down and violent neighborhood, seeking an opening to become something more than their circumstances.
I think everyone knows — or perhaps is — an Elena or a Lila. The two are friends, but it’s the type of volatile friendship that’s marked as much by competition and envy as by generosity and loyalty. It all starts at school, where Lila assumes the more dominant role in the partnership and, in addition, appears to possess the kind of brilliance where she doesn’t even have to try to be the best in her class. While Elena is never outright resentful, she begins to measure her own academic achievement not by her own abilities and standards, but by using Lila’s progress as a benchmark. They’re both recognized as the highest achievers, but it’s generally accepted that Lila is the truly gifted one, the “natural” brain. Elena takes it in stride, but underneath is a simmering drive to be better in something, to win for once.
The major turning point in their relationship is when Elena’s parents allow her to continue in secondary school, while Lila’s do not. Suddenly, though Lila showed so much promise on her own, she has to play the second to Elena, and use Elena’s exposure to new topics and concepts to further her own education. At first, this benefits both the girls; Lila gets to improve her knowledge and Elena continues to be able to measure her own aptitude against what Lila independently masters. But this balance is eventually upset by puberty and the inevitability that, try all she likes, not going to school means Lila’s life is more likely than not leading her toward a future in the home. Her resignation to this end dovetails with her development into a striking beauty, and when the boys of the neighborhood start seeing her in a new light, she leaves her study behind. This may have counted as a victory for Elena, but it leaves her, too, confused and unsettled, and unsure of how to continue without Lila as her intellectual compass.
My Brilliant Friend is not a Big Book with a lot of Plot. It’s a series of quiet moments of tragedy, beauty, pettiness, anger, and carving out small achievements in an oppressive environment. The narrative conceit of looking back on this childhood invites a sense of wonder of
how auto-biographical the story is, particularly given the anonymity of the author and the frankness of the prose. I’m looking forward to the next three books.