I’m going to begin by including a brief summary of each of the individual books in the series, before reviewing all books as a whole, as I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk about my reading experience and impression of these books individually.
My Brilliant Friend
We are introduced to the two protagonists of the series, in our narrator Elena Greco (also sometimes called Lenuccia or Lenu) and her best friend Raffaela (called Lena by most people, but Lila by Elena). As with the great Russian novels, I’m honestly not sure why the nicknames are so different from people’s normal names. There’s a huge cast of characters in each book, many with a whole host of different monikers. Thankfully there is a handy list at the start of each book so you can keep track.
Anyways, Elena and Lila are young girls growing up in a rough part of post-World War II Naples, a place of poverty and squalor, large families, not to mention organised crime and violence. Elena is the more quiet and nervous of the two, with Lila in some ways her complete opposite, confident and fierce. They start school together and while Elena loves books and learning and strives to apply herself so she’ll be allowed to continue in school, Lila is the fiercely brilliant one, having taught herself to read before any of the other children and constantly impressing the strict teacher, even as she clearly makes no efforts to become well-liked. The girls’ friendship is defined by their academic rivalry, and while Lila is initially clearly ‘the brilliant friend’ of the title, things change when her parents won’t let her continue her education to secondary school because they need her help at home, while Elena is allowed to continue, as long as she excels.
Nevertheless, while she feels lucky and triumphant at this, Elena can’t help but constantly comparing herself to Lila and now does what she can to pass on her knowledge to her friend, even as their paths seem to diverge more and more, changing their friendship as their spheres become ever more different. As they grow older and hit puberty, Elena once more feels overshadowed by Lila, who while a late bloomer becomes one of the neighbourhood beauties, while Elena feels gawky and unattractive. While she keeps struggling to stay in school, Lila is being courted by the most popular young men in the area and looks to be maturing away from Elena for good.
The Story of a New Name
Lila has gotten married to one of the richest young men in the neighbourhood and as a result changed the fortunes of her entire family, but Elena is deeply worried about her, and with good reason it seems. Married life is not at all what Lila expected and while she’s able to live a life of leisure and glamour, she is clearly not very happy either. She uses the admiration of the powerful (and possibly Mob connected) Solara brothers to further her family’s ambitions, even though neither her father nor her brother seems to have much in the way of actual drive or business acumen.
Elena, meanwhile, continues her education and starts considering a career as a writer, and pines in her infatuation of the older, intellectual Nino Sarratore. At times, she has barely any contact with Lila, but even as they stay competitive and occasionally jealous of each other, they share a bond that refuses to be broken, and whenever Lila really needs her, Elena can’t help but return to aid her.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
This book is set in the 1970s and both our protagonists are now grown women. Lila has left her abusive husband and taken her son with her, living in a very rough area and working herself to the bone in a sausage factory. She’s living platonically with one of her childhood friends, Enzo, who tries to support them as best he can as a labourer, while taking evening classes on computer science on the side. Elena, meanwhile, has finished college and published a novel to fair acclaim. She meets and marries a promising young university professor from an esteemed family, moving away from her family in Naples to settle in Florence, growing more separated from her volatile best friend. Even living in very different circumstances, in different parts of the country, their lives still connect and their bond remains, if fraught and threatened at times.
The Story of the Lost Child
The final book in the series sees Elena and Lila into middle age, with great changes having taken place in their lives. Having divorced her husband and left Florence, Elena moves back to Naples to be with her lover, Nino Sarratore, despite his reluctance to actually leave his wife and commit fully to her. Lila, on the other hand, having taken night classes with her partner Enzo has surpassed even his skill with computers and programming and is now a wealthy and successful employer and entrepreneur in their old neighbourhood, now supporting not only her family, but her ex-husband Stefano, whose family fortunes are lost and seemingly having even the dangerous Solara brothers under her control.
Lila and Elena rekindle their sometimes very antagonistic, competitive and conflicted friendship as they experience pregnancy together and eventually, live as neighbours in the same building. When tragedy strikes for Lila, and her little daughter disappears, Lila and Elena’s fortunes yet again seem to reverse, taking their relationship in new and unexpected directions.
Full review on my blog.