Review of My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante (Book 1 of the Neapolitan Novels series) translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

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Naturally we were improvising. In the course of that back and forth I tried to understand what was really going through Lila’s head, so as to be in tune with her goals.

Lila, aka Raffaella Cerullo, and Lenù, aka Elena Greco, have been best friends since they were small enough to believe their dolls were speaking to them. They grew up together in the same impoverished neighbourhood in Naples, with its overcrowded tenements, domestic abuse, and never-ending struggle of its inhabitants to survive.

Lenù and Lila are constantly in danger of being pulled out of school, their families needing the money that an extra worker could bring in. Early on, their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, recognises Lila’s intelligence, which enables her to continue her education. Lenù, jealous of the attention her friend has received and eager to please the teacher, aims to match her abilities, thereby gaining her place at the school too. And so begins a friendly rivalry which continues for the remainder of their lives, and which, ironically, enables them to thrive in this harsh, patriarchal society.

With a lively cast of characters–from the foreboding, mysterious and ever-dreaded Don Achille, who runs the grocery store, to that of Melina, a love-sick, hysterical widow, and even Marcello Solara, the local big-shot who is the first to purchase a car and parade it through the streets trying to pick up local girls–Ferrante imbues potentially depressing scenes with a sense of vibrancy and passion. While the story is told in first-person, from Lenù’s perspective, the narrative arc of all of her characters is shown. The masterful cohesiveness of this story, combined with Ferrante’s strikingly intimate and detailed prose, brought this small section of Naples to life for me. Indeed, Lila and Lenù’s struggles seemed to mirror that of their entire neighbourhood, which in turn mirrored that of Naples itself.

I look forward to reading the rest of this immersive and engaging series.

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