Naples: a city defined by neighborhood allegiances and identity; tall old buildings that cast shadows on suspiciously narrow streets, seductions, laundry, pizza shops, savage alleys, and love; a city wedged in tight between a melting sea and resistant rocks; a city with railways leading out and two halves of a blown volcano–Vesuvius–looming on the horizon. Elena Ferrante’s astute novel, My Brilliant Friend, gets under the skin of this mercurial city through the friendship of two women, Elena Greco, the daughter of a city hall porter, and Lila Cerulla, the shoemaker’s daughter. Both girls are determined to be rich so as to leave behind the cruelty of poverty. They are competitive, repulsed by their mothers, loved by fathers who will beat them, and live in small houses where they have no rooms of their own or places to study. It tells an important story about community, honesty, growing up, staying attached while learning to detach, about survival in an explosive place that bubbles underneath because most people quietly place stones over the past.
My Brilliant Friend is a literary work, full of unflashy detail, a novel about women and friendship that is not chick-lit, the first in a planned trilogy. It fictionalizes childhood and adolescence during the 50s, chronicling the vicissitudes of Lila and Elena’s friendship; at the same time allegorizing the modernization of Italy.
To go outside of the neighborhood is to cross into the experience of new people, landscapes, ideas and books. As youngsters, Lila and Elena stay put on their side of the stradone. They push each other to confront fear, to conjugate Latin verbs and to declense nouns, to memorize Greek. They discuss Fascism, communism, money, the Holy Spirit. They are high-brow. For example, Elena is attracted to one boy because “…he resembles Hector as depicted in the Iliad.” One the other side of the spectrum,they do not want the basement cockroaches to crawl over their skin. They are devoted, politically aware, and powerful. Lila “could wound with words and kill without hesitation.”
Perhaps the most naturally gifted of the duo, Lila gives up studying to work in the shoe shop with her father and brother. Elena, however, leaves the neighborhood to go to high school, where she excels despite continuing to be upstaged intellectually, and physically, by Lila, who secretly devours classics and grammar books she takes out from the library and who blooms into the most delicious alpha female. At age 16, Lila determined to move herself and family up the social ladder, marries a wealthy grocer. Eventually, in adulthood, Elena (we find out in the prologue) manages to move to Turin to become the writer who narrates this novel. Lila, never sets foot outside Naples.
Most touching, My Brilliant Friend is about who we carry with us, in our hearts. The imprints of childhood on our clean hard disks are people, textures, and fears; the sums of our friend’s and family’s misdeeds and cowardly acts. Still we love and continue to love.
Because a city without love is evil; its people unhappy. Ferrante captures place and time and both sides of human nature, the drive to be the best, and reveals an awareness of her country, from particular to universal, as seen through the savage attachment of two brilliant women.
My Brilliant Friend. by Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. USA: Europa Editions, 2012. 331pp.