I revisited this book for class, and while the language and visceral imagery remained the same this time as it did on my first read, I was struck this time by just how much the theme of education ran through this story.
For a general recapping of the story, here’s the amazon blurb: “Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost sixty years, as its protagonists, the fiery and unforgettable Lila, and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflictual friendship. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as ten-year-olds through their school years and adolescence. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.”
Lenu and Lila are both ‘smart’ intellectually and streetwise, though more of the street sense ends on Lila’s side since her family is much more volatile than Lenu’s. However, starting from six years old, Lenu and Lila are pitted against one another by their parents, teachers, and peers to see who will come out on top. Regardless of, or maybe because of, this competition, the girls become fast friends, with Lila continuously pushing Lenu along to be a better student. Throughout the story, they refer to one another as ‘my brilliant friend,’ Lenu because she sees the raw intellect Lila has that she can never attain. Lila because Lenu far surpasses her in studiousness. Of their neighborhood, they are the only two women who seem to make it out of the crushing barbs of poverty, Lenu literally, as she spends much of her teenage years away from the neighborhood for school and work, and Lila figuratively, as she marries wealthy and sets up a home outside of the neighborhood by the end of the story.
While the characters still have their struggles and the story continues for another three books, it was interesting to me that the subliminal story of this book seemed to be that learning was the way for these women to elevate themselves in a time of Italian history where education was not widely encouraged.
4 stars for beautiful writing and feminist ideas.