My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
Slow and steady, My Brilliant Friend starts by telling the story of two girls coming of age. I say slow and steady because the first half of the novel didn’t really grab my attention. Slow to start, however, once I began to see the panoramic view Ferrante paints, I become more involved in Lenu’s decisions and evermore invested in her life’s happenings. The pace was steady from there on out.
I don’t love reading a jacket cover, nor do I like knowing much about a book when I begin reading. I don’t want to be waiting for something to happen, I don’t want to be bias, and I don’t want to have anything to look forward to other than my own predictions. I went into this novel (part 1 of 4 books), knowing absolutely nothing other than a friend’s recommendation that I would LOVE it.
For the first 60 pages or so, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Really? I’m going love this?’ But, then it happened. The landscape I looked out on was all-encompassing. Ferrante set the stage with such detail and thoughtfulness, that I could picture what Lenu and Lila looked like, what the Solara 1100 sounded like, what the neighbourhood smelled like, and what Lenu felt in each moment. Ferrante took careful consideration to draw her readers into a world that most don’t know about in this day and age. It isn’t so much what happened to Lenu in her childhood and young teenage years that is so different from us today; it’s the mentality of her Italian neighbourhood, the stradone that she walked up and down every day, the characters (or plebs as her teacher calls them) that she lives among; it’s a way of thinking that you need to adopt in order to read this novel.
The novel has an overarching theme of us versus them (or rather, me versus them). Lenu is growing up and she struggles as she faces the reality that she is not only different from the world she was born from, but she has outgrown it in an irreversible way. She notices this in moments where she can no longer converse with her friends and neighbors the way she once had, because no one would understand her. Lenu’s way of thinking is on an intellectual level and she can’t seem to find someone who will challenge her mind.
Most reviewers talk about how this book is about a brilliant friendship, or how the story renders the picture of friendship with sheer excellence. I completely disagree. Yes, Lenu and Lila are best friends, but holy crap! If this is the definition of a perfect friendship, then shoot me now. Lenu is exhaustingly obsessed with her best friend, constantly seeking confirmation that she is good enough; she is the weak and feeble and easily influenced. Yes, she eventually outgrows her, but at what cost? To become the same weak and ineffectual girl to her Nino counterpart. She doesn’t stand on her own, she doesn’t have her own thoughts (her article that gains praise from her teachers is possibly, to her memory, Lila’s ideas). What this book is more than anything is a depiction in excellence of a poor Italian neighbourhood in the 50s—inside this neighbourhood is one person’s struggle to find herself, define herself, and become who she is despite her circumstance. She is initially fights to fit in, but outgrows her childish struggle and begins her internal fight, growing pains and all, to find a place for herself in the world, not necessarily in her neighbourhood. That’s where the book leaves of… hope that she is a smart enough young woman to grow into her potential as an intellectual—3 more books-worth of story leaves tons of space for that possibility.
The novel reads easily and smoothly. Lenu, our narrator, talks about the act of writing and the type of writer she wishes to be; her definition is matched in form. Although it’s slow-paced, it’s light and seemingly fluffy. Like an onion, it has many layers to peel away, and with each layer comes more aspects to the story that add dimension to Lenu, her friends as well as Italy in the 50s. Incidentally, the novel reads as though it were still written in Italian. It was translated into English, but the flow and sentence structure remains Italian, so you can’t help but feel as though you are brought back to a place—an inescapable way of thinking—and, like Lenu, trying to find a path out. The difference between us and her is that we know what lies beyond her world… she has yet to discover it.
Taking a break between book 1 and 2, I picked up a novel I enjoyed almost 10 years ago. I wanted to reread it in an experiment to theorize the reinvention of a novel at the reader’s hand (or eye). It’s a pressing question I’ve been developing and plan to answer with the backdrop of several books. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, is one of many books I will reread along the way. For now, my brilliant friends, get to reading some Ferrante. You won’t be sorry.