Book Review: My Brilliant Friend

Thursday 9 June 2016 by

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, Europe Editions, Book, ReadingMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Published by Europa Editions

**Shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year 2015**

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors. My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila.

Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists.

~*~

In the past few months, the legend of Elena Ferrante has grown. From her series of novels (starting with My Brilliant Friend) to the mystery surrounding the author herself. When we picked it at as a bookclub pick, I think it was more for the curiosity than anything else.

My Brilliant Friend tells the story of Elena and Lila through Elena’s eyes, from when they first meet at school to their teenage years. Lila is a headstrong, competitive and intelligent girl, and Elena feels at once drawn to her and tortured by her inferiority. It is the competitive nature of the girls that draws them together.

Much of the book, for me, was uncomfortable reading. Neither girl exactly showers themselves in glory, and Lila is a character that I simply can’t warm to. Elena, although easier to like, feels weak. But I read it because I was curious about the dynamic between them. It feels like a lot of childhood friendships, and their discovery of the world around them is timeless – their experiences feel much like a 21st Century exploration of growing up, even though this is set in post-war Italy and nothing like 90s Britain!

But what intrigued me most was never Elena and Lila (and perhaps that it why I haven’t rushed to read the next book), but the setting itself. I was intrigued by the adults, the societal norms and expectations. I adore a good description, and Ferrante manages to make the heat soak through the pages and the smell rise from the letters. It’s rich and beautiful and tragic. Because it is told through Elena’s eyes, you are hyper-aware of how much you are missing – the secrets going unsaid beneath the surface. I wanted to know more about the much-despised mother, the neighbours and their torrid affairs, the murder (did they really catch the right person?)

Because this is told from a perspective of an adult looking back, but still with a child’s innocence (it’s rare to find a book where this is so artfully done), you see a lot of gaps. Instead of brushing over them, Ferrante acknowledges them – openly admitting the gaps in her memory and understanding.

Is this a memoir? It’s written as if it were, but it reads as if it were fiction. I can understand the love for these books, and the interest that surrounds them. It is deftly written – confident prose with handsome narrative and compelling characters (even if you don’t like them). There is a bitter sweetness to the story, a kind of nostalgia blended with resentment and regret. Elena is furious and lovesick all at once. Lila becomes a greater mystery still as the book goes on, and it ends feeling unresolved.

As a work of contemporary fiction, this is masterful, but I was left feeling a little disappointed and frustrated. Perhaps I am used to conclusive novels – ones where you know exactly what is going on all the time, and everything is neatly tied up at the end (or left with enough of a cliffhanger for a sequel) – so this feels half-finished.

I have a lot of friends who are Ferrante fans, but I feel unconverted. The curiosity that sparked the reading of this book was not satisfied, but nor was it fanned in to flames enough to keep reading. Perhaps she will forever remain a mystery to me.

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