I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.
My friend Meghan has been
nagging begging asking me nicely to read this book for ages. I finally relented and told her that I’d read it as a Christmas present to her. Aren’t I the most generous person you know? It’s not that I didn’t want to read it. I’d had it all queued up on my kindle for over a year. I guess I just knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy read – and by that I mean it would be intellectually and emotionally challenging. Sometimes you’re in the mood for that and sometimes you’re not. And to be honest, these days, I’m mostly not.
This is the first in a quartet – The Neapolitain Novels. This first novel follows the childhood and adolescence of the narrator, Lenu, and her best friend, Lila. Lenu and Lila grow up in a gritty and hardscrabble neighborhood in the outskirts of Naples. I don’t think the exact year is ever given, but it’s likely post WW II and probably roughly early 1950s. Lenu is a bright girl, but Lila seems to possess a more keen and innate intelligence. They’re both noticed at school and elevated above the other students through most of elementary. They dream of acquiring wealth and escaping their hopeless, violent neighborhood. One of the (rare) sweet moments of the novel has the girls using money intended to buy dolls to instead purchase a copy of Little Women. They read and re-read it so much that it nearly disintegrates. A shift occurs, however, when Lenu is allowed to continue her studies through middle school and Lila is not. The rest of the novel traces both their shared and diverging paths through adolescence.
This ranks as one of the most unique and memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had. The story quite literally *never* went where I expected it to go. It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. There’s definitely a kind of comfort in reading the familiar and predictable and, let me tell you, there is very little comforting about this book. It’s so hyper-realistic and laser focused about the lives it portrays that it often feels oppressive. The one time that a character unexpectedly and briefly escapes the neighborhood for a beach holiday made me feel ridiculous relief…until, of course, it all came crashing down around me again. Ferrante seems to break so many of the expected rules of the storytelling that it sometimes feels disorienting, but it has the intended effect of keeping me actively engaged at all times. Most stories tread such a familiar path that you can allow yourself to wander a bit without getting lost. Not so here!
One of the things I’m fascinated with is how female friendships are portrayed in fiction. It stands out to me when an author or filmmaker makes an effort at nuance versus the old tropes and petty rivalries. I’m not saying that female friendships don’t sometimes contain elements of competition – that’s basic evolutionary behavior – but they’re also more complex than that.
In most fiction there is usually one female who is meant to be superior to all the others – intellectually, morally, physically or all of the above. That isn’t so in this novel. The narrator can be self-deprecating and brutally honest about herself, but the truth is that the balance is constantly shifting between the two girls. Lenu is definitely the more fortunate in terms of life circumstances, but Lila has a natural charisma and shrewdness that no amount of education could ever achieve. Lenu knows this and it haunts her, and we assume Lila feels no small amount bitterness over her fate as well. Because of this, they both take part in petty little cruelties and small acts of sabotage against one another. But there’s also genuine love and fierce loyalty between the two. Lenu admires Lila and they both try to protect each other from life. In short, it’s complicated – like real life!
I’ll take a little break from the series – mainly because of book club reading, etc. – but I’m eager to pick up the second and continue with Lenu and Lila.
Title: My Brilliant Friend
Author: Elena Ferrante (translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein)
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars