My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There was no question on finishing this book that I’d be reading the rest of the novels… but I was surprised at how I swept into it. First, I hadn’t done my research, so I didn’t know that the four novels really constitute one really big epic novel. I was surprised at what felt like a somewhat abrupt ending (as they all are perhaps). The characters go through their lives, full of drama and change, but there are no particular reasons, I think for the divisions. You have to stop somewhere, and then continue again… which could be one of the themes of the book.
In any case, this novel is one where the characters and situation are so far from my own life, and yet I felt attached to them, interested in them, and in some ways related to them, strangely enough. Lila and Elena represent the strongest portrayal of frenemies I’ve ever read, though we read about it only through Elena’s eyes. We meet them at age four or five and through them meet their families and the people in their rough neighbourhood in Naples, who we will continue to get to know throughout the novels. There is something of a thriller in the narrative; the chapters are short, and often end with short, sharp sentences or pronouncements that made me want to turn immediately to the next chapter. The first quarter of the book is about their childhood, and their interactions with school and education (and the violence of the neighbourhood around them).
The rest of the book, ‘adolescence’, takes us through a few narratives, the development of a shoe factory, Elena’s first boyfriend and first love (not the same person), and Lila being courted, including by one of two handsome, dangerous and rich brothers. They are only sixteen at the end of the book, but Lila is being married already. Most of the narrative drive comes from the portrayal of Lila: feisty, formidable, courageous, strong, bad-tempered and forceful of will and character. At one point in the book, I was getting tired of the repetition of Elena’s constant interrogating and analysis of their relationship, the way she viewed herself only in relation to her best friend; I was relieved when this shifted. But it still is the novel’s fuel, and I was delighted with the trick of the title, to have been lead to assume one thing from it and be proven wrong, or at least simple-minded, when the trick is played.
At the end of this first novel, I couldn’t yet figure out why I liked it so much. There is still so much to come in the lives of these remarkable women, but I found the narrative captivating, even while having to track all of the different characters (with the helpful index of characters)! So yes, a good book, a good narrative and good writing; I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
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