So, this is a tough review to write, though not because I didn't like the book in question, the latest Elena Ferrante novel to be translated into English, My Brilliant Friend (the sequel is out in Italian). I liked the book, admired it even. It's challenging, like all of her books, but in a different way from the others. The novel opens with the disappearance of Lila, the oldest and best friend of the narrator, Elena.The two haven't been in touch for a while but Elena hears from her son often. She's used to Rino's demands for money, but when he calls up one day and tells her that his mother is missing, Elena decides it's time to write the story of their friendship, right from the beginning.
And it's the story of this friendship that takes up the rest of the book, along with two sequels yet to be released in English. It's a long story of rivalry and competition between the two girls, their families, the boys who desire them and different ways of life. Lila (or Lina, as Elena calls her) is a top student when they're kids but she's taken out of school to work in her father's shoe business. Lena, always a good student but second to Lila, shines when her talented friend is out of the picture but Lila studies on her own, still outpacing her friend. As they enter their teen years, Lila starts to attract attention from boys, attention that will inject drama and lead to life-altering decisions. Elena narrates the story, imagining or speculating about the often enigmatic Lila. Reading My Brilliant Friend, I always felt like the overly straightforward "then this happened, then this happened" style was concealing something else, a second narrative hidden in the first, which is Lila's real story, a story that Elena only see and understands from the corner of her eye.
After Lila leaves school, for example, Elena imagines Lila having a sort of grand time working in the shoe shop, teaching herself English to outshine Lena, but sometimes I started to wonder about that. After all, shoemaking was considered a low-status profession, and it was to this that she's consigned while Lena pursues a formal education and does well, too. Lena starts to wonder the same thing:
During that period [her early teens] I felt strong...I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighborhood, I went to high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers. When she talked to me about Dido or her method for learning English words...I saw with increasing clarity that it made her somewhat uneasy, as if it were ultimately she who felt the need to continuously prove that she could talk to me as an equal.My Brilliant Friend lacks the kind of shocking bluntness that characterizes books like The Days of Abandonment or The Lost Daughter. The book's power comes from this accumulation of detail, of day to day life and the slowly diverging trajectories of the two girls. I feel like in that way it's a more subtle and artfully crafted book. and one that I look forward to continuing with the eventual English publication of the sequels. I will say the book ends on a very powerful note of Ferrantean shock, both for the reader and for the two main characters. Though nothing material has changed- nobody dies or anything like that- a small gesture becomes enough to change each girl's understanding of the present and the future. The reader will put the book down pondering what's to come as well.
I'm all done with my 12 books for the 2012 Europa Challenge. Join in for 2013, okay?