I can finally say I’ve taken part in Ferrante Fever! I gulped up My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels quartet, faster than water during the July heat wave. Ferrante’s work is reminiscent of Jane Austen, with complex family drama, seriously complicated relationships, and too many characters to keep track of, but unlike Austen’s classics, My Brilliant Friend is spicy and electrifying.
From the jacket:
From one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, comes this ravishing and generous-hearted novel about a friendship that lasts a lifetime. The story of Elena and Lila begins in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else, as their friendship, beautifully and meticulously rendered, becomes a not always perfect shelter from hardship. Ferrante has created a memorable portrait of two women, but My Brilliant Friend is also the story of a nation. Through the lives of Elena and Lila, Ferrante gives her readers the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country undergoing momentous change.
Ferrante transports her readers directly into this small Italian neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, post-WWII. Like any other small town in literature, everyone knows everyone and there is plenty of drama to go around, from more serious offenses like murder and adultery, to typical preteen anxieties like first crushes and the despairs of puberty. My Brilliant Friend is not only about the friendship between two young girls, but also about the strenuous relationships within their neighborhood.
Right off the bat, Ferrante introduces dozens of characters; it seems everyone in town has a role to play in Elena and Lila’s story. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of characters. It was difficult to keep track of everyone, their families, their friends and enemies. But once I was in, I was in for good, and after I could remember each character and their relationships without referring to the list at the front of the book, My Brilliant Friend became a much more enjoyable read! I started to feel like I was living directly in this Italian neighborhood alongside Elena and Lila, witnessing their actions firsthand.
“There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.”
-Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
Immediately after finishing My Brilliant Friend, I went to pick up the three sequels and rushed to watch the eight-episode series before my HBO subscription expired. (It is by far the best book-to-screen adaptation I’ve seen, following the novel almost exactly.) I would highly, highly recommend My Brilliant Friend. It’s smart, spicy, and unputdownable; a true escapist read. Now, please excuse me while I run to start reading the second novel.
Find this book on Goodreads.