I may have not read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante if my friend Liz hadn’t passionately recommended it to me. I was down at the library to borrow it immediately. My reasons for haste were because I was going to stay with her in a couple of weeks and I wished to be prepared for the discussion about books and writing I knew we would have. Liz and I met as young teens, at school in the sixties, two clever but disaffected kids. Not unalike Lia and Lenù the main characters in Ferrante’s book, the first in her Neapolitan series, Book One: Childhood, Adolescence.
My Brilliant Friend opens in 1950’s Italy. Lia and Lenù meet in school and remain tied to each other by invisible strings. What one admires in the other, the other seems to lack. Initially it is the academic brilliance of Lia who has no need to strive for achievement, but Lenù must. They vie for attention, of their families, boys, themselves. Lenù is a dreamer, Lia is not. She is tough. Lives without fear. Lenù does not.
There are villains, fights, death, and madness to be found in their poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. It is a world of hard work and hard knocks, jealousies and intense friendships. Males dominate; in homes and the schoolyard. But women also, are known for violence between themselves. It is a brutal existence. Through Lenù’s eyes the reader experiences her world, accepting that ‘… Life was like that, that’s all … She follows Lia around like a puppy terrified by her friend’s extreme acts. We get to meet a cast of characters, so interesting, so colourful, and beautifully drawn, it is hard to put the book down. Because, Ferrante’s words have the ability to reach inside us and squeeze us hard.
I happened to watch the film Jersey Boys while reading this book, and felt that the timing was serendipitous. Italian youth, gangs, macho behaviour, and the girls drawn to the boys and their cars; it was at once particular, yet universal. The girls could have been Lia and Lènu, or, Liz and me. For during adolescence, the world is all about you. It’s full of emotion, tensions, crushes. And boys. It’s of wanting to break free, from family or teachers. It’s a time of learning who you might be; or don’t want to be. And all of this vitality is in My Brilliant Friend, where the story bursts from the pages.
If you haven’t read My Brilliant Friend, I urge you to. I am about to order the second book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. And, I might just have to watch Jersey Boys as a back up. Thanks Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, on behalf of the once fourteen year-old girl that remembered all the words to Sherry and Big Girls Don’t Cry.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: published by Europa Editions, New York, 2012