The first of Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels series, My Brilliant Friend is a perceptive, emotionally honest depiction of childhood and adolescence, as well as the closeness and fraught distance of long-term friendship. More specifically, the childhood and adolescence and long-term friendship of its joint-protagonists – narrator Elena, and her close friend Lila – in a tight-knit, poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples. It also wins this year’s award for ‘Best Book With The Absolute Worst Front Cover Honestly What Were They Thinking’.
I say joint-protagonists because while we’re glued to Elena’s perspective throughout – with stretches in the book where Lila doesn’t appear at all – it’s as much a story about Lila as it is about Elena. And while My Brilliant Friend does a wonderful job of depicting the various lives of its dozens of characters, surrounded as they are by the pressures of family, economics, class, and gender divides, the friendship between Elena and Lila is the heart of the novel.
While both Elena and Lila are fiercely intelligent, even as young girls, there’s something different about Lila that marks her as separate – something people recognise the moment they meet her, but can’t quite put into words. Elena is smart and does well academically – so well in fact that, unlike almost everyone else in her neighbourhood she’s given the opportunity of pursuing education beyond primary school (remember: a poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples). But she manages this by strict self-discipline and endless hours of study. Lila, on the other hand – a strange and rough girl; capable of insight and self-confidence Elena finds herself in awe of – effortlessly reads and effortlessly learns and effortlessly shows mastery over any subject she puts her mind to, despite being denied the chance to study.
Or at least everything she does seems effortless to Elena. One of the central focuses of My Brilliant Friend (and its sequel The Story of a New Name) is Elena’s near-deification of Lila as intellectually peerless; effortlessly eloquent and thoughtful. Though she is clearly exceptional in many ways, she’s raised up on a pedestal, and much of Elena’s way of looking at herself and the course of her own life is tangled up with Lila.
She feels guilt over having the opportunity to continue her education while Lila is forced out, but then feels intense jealousy that Lila continues to read and show academic prowess, arguably superior to her own, despite being denied that education. She works hard to succeed and constantly gets the very top grades in her classes, but then feels like an impostor; buoyed up only by hard work, devoid of even a spark of original thinking, whereas it all comes naturally to Lila. And she wants to strike out on her own path – become her own person without constantly thinking how she compares to Lila, but then seems to want nothing more than to best Lila in every aspect of her life.
It’s a friendship formed of long history and genuine affection, of course, but it’s also a source of deep anxiety for Elena. Because Lila is always there in her mind – exceptional and effortless and slightly more than human.
And as the novel progresses (and continues into The Story of a New Name), this image of Lila, devoid of the context of her interiority, increasingly struggles against the reality of her actions and her decisions. Elena expects so much more of Lila than anyone else, and yet Lila isn’t a perfect being born fully formed into limitless possibility, but a human shaped by the confines of her life: her strict family that refuses to let her study, her economic position that trammels her ambitions, her dependence on men in a a rough, male-dominated society, her own stubbornness and anxieties and emotional problems that are only hinted at, rarely explored, but are so important for understanding her.
Amongst many other impressive things (including their exploration of the draining, overbearing role of patriarchy in the lives of the two girls , which I could write a whole post about, and just might (but probably won’t, lets face it)), these are books about trying to understand someone, but being unable to do so. Partly because we can never get access to another person’s interior mind, of course. But also because the baggage of one’s own investment in that person can blind us to how they are a living, breathing person that exists independent of how they make us feel.
Elena’s image of Lila was born of that rough, arrogant, unknowable young girl, with a wide-open future and the ability to do anything. And it barely changes even as Lila’s future narrows and narrows in the face of the reality, and as her actions chafe against Elena’s expectations.
And as well as this, they’re books about how our investment and interpretation of someone close to us can reveal as much, if not more, about ourselves than it ever does about them. We get to know Elena as much by how she thinks about Lila, as by how she thinks about herself. Her expectations out of life and her struggle against the overbearing, depressing presence of her mother, reflected in her distaste at Lila’s settling for her role as woman in a working family. Her anxiety and sense of herself as perpetual imposter – Feeling she lacks genuine worth; always second-best to the coruscating wit and insight of Lila, regardless of how well she does. Twisting and contorting in order to condemn herself, to the point where hard work doesn’t count for anything so long as she’s the one doing it. Where she’s wholly lacking of intelligence and insight despite continually impressing those around her, only it doesn’t count.
My Brilliant Friend is wholly relatable in the best way – not in reflecting a life we directly recognise as similar to our own, but in reflecting an emotional truth we recognise in a life we don’t.
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