Rating: 3 stars
Even before the recent ‘outing’ of Elena Ferrante’s true identity, I had been meaning to read her Neapolitan Quartet. I’ve read articles comparing it to Karl Ove Knausgård’s series of books fictionalising his passage through life and his family relationships. I’ve had it recommended to me as something I would enjoy. It has been on my Kindle for a while. In October, I decided I would only read books written by women and, as much as possible, books by women I hadn’t read before. So I came to My Brilliant Friend at the end of the month.
I’ll be honest. I found it a difficult book to immerse myself in. It’s well written but somehow too aware of itself. I felt as though I was being taken through a plot, rather than sharing the experiences of the people in the story. It had peaks and troughs for me. I didn’t feel compelled to keep reading. There have been days when I’ve only managed 30 minutes with it. It hasn’t been because it’s an intellectually difficult read, more that I’ve found it difficult to really connect with the characters. I found it a bit clichéd.
The story follows two friends, Elena and Lila, through their childhood and adolescence in a village outside Naples. Told from Elena’s perspective, it examines the nature of friendship and rivalry, and touches on political and social tensions in Italy in the years after the Second World War. Ferrante depicts village life vividly: the brutality, the closeness of death, with what ease simple actions become destructive and sometimes fatal.
At the start of the book, Elena’s friend Lila has disappeared without a trace, as has long been her wish. This prompts Elena to reminisce about their friendship, starting with their competitive courting of each other as children. Lila is challenging, fearless, reckless and enigmatic. She stares down anyone, from teachers to local tough boy bullies, with no thought for her safety.
The description of Lila’s indomitability the first time Elena became aware of her in class, and of the way the class teacher tried to verbally discipline her, is rich in its choice of language.
Lila … was always bad. Once she tore up some blotting paper into little pieces, dipped the pieces one by one in the inkwell, and then fished them out with her pen and threw them at us … The teacher yelled, as she knew how to do, in a voice like a needle, long and pointed, which terrorised us, and ordered her to go and stand behind the blackboard in punishment. Lila didn’t obey and didn’t even seem frightened …
Lila’s disobedience doesn’t end well for the teacher. We learn that Lila cannot be moved by anything as mundane as discipline.
Elena recounts the birth of their friendship through competition and rivalry. As the fair haired, grey eyed child in a family of dark haired, brown eyed siblings, I took an interest in Ferrante’s categorisation of Elena and Lila according to their hair and eye colour. Both girls are clever, but blonde, blue eyed Elena is unthreatening because of her fairness and prettiness. Lila is dark and glittering and almost a malevolent force. Her cleverness is a challenge and a rebuff to everyone else. Lila is also the one who seems not to care about what others think of her.
Now that I’m an adult, I choose to dye my hair the same dark brown as my siblings. Somehow, I feel more at home in the world with dark hair. I’m aware that people react differently to me, as well. I am a more serious prospect, somehow, and my dark humour seems intensified to the extent that some people are wary of me until they get to know me. I know this because twice in my adult life I’ve gone back to being a lighter brown, not quite blonde but not far off, and experienced an oddly easier passage through social situations.
For Ferrante to choose hair colour as a signifier of difference in personality, then, caught my attention. I liked Lila more than Elena, and I think it’s because she’s depicted in dark tones. I am taken by the strangest things in books.
The other aspect that grabbed me was the depiction of a friendship that was actually rivalry, born from Lila’s insecurity and fear that someone else might be more brilliant than her. The way she draws Elena to her, and the way she punishes her under the guise of friendship, plus the way Elena allows it to happen because she, too, is insecure and frightened, fascinated me. The passages describing the adventure the two girls take one day, instigated by Lila, are wonderful both because of Elena’s reasons for going along with Lila (a sense of freedom and exploration) and because of Lila’s sinister but obscured motivation (hobbling Elena’s chances in the middle school exam). The girls head out of town, through a tunnel, along the road that leads from their village to the sea.
When I think of the pleasure of being free, I think of the start of that day, of coming out of the tunnel and finding ourselves on a road that went straight as far as the eye could see, the road that, according to what Rino had told Lila, if you got to the end arrived at the sea. I felt joyfully open to the unknown.
Then we began to get tired, to get thirsty and hungry. We hadn’t thought of that. Lila slowed down, I slowed down, too. Two or three times I caught her looking at me, as if she had done something mean to me and was sorry.
The pair turn back as a rain storm rolls in and return to the village to find their absence has not gone undiscovered. Elena’s father beats her and she feels the injustice of this in relation to not having reached her goal. She begins to suspect Lila’s motivation.
We were supposed to go to the sea and we hadn’t gone, I had been punished for nothing. A mysterious inversion of attitudes had occurred: I, despite the rain, would have continued on the road, I felt far from everything and everyone, and distance – I discovered for the first time – extinguished in me every tie and every worry; Lila had abruptly repented of her own plan, she had given up the sea, she had wanted to return to the confines of the neighbourhood. I couldn’t figure it out.
Lila’s reaction to Elena’s news that she was still studying for the exam, that her parents hadn’t punished her by stopping her extra tuition, reveals to Elena Lila’s true motivation – that she was trying to prevent Elena from achieving her academic aims.
I love that line: “I felt far from everything and everyone, and distance – I discovered for the first time – extinguished in me every tie and every worry”. There is something about new horizons, about putting distance between you and the familiar, that thrills me. I’m always wishing I could run away, convinced that Over There will be better than Right Here.
The girls’ low level rivalry continues when Elena continues her education and Lila attempts to revolutionise her father’s shoe repair business. Their friendship isn’t as close, but becomes something more symbiotic. Elena thrives on the ideas that spring from conversations she has with Lila, and Elena’s experiences in school spur Lila on to become someone different.
They become teenagers. They start the road to womanhood. They attract the attention of boys and men. Lila’s difference draws men to her in a way that Elena can’t understand. To her, Lila isn’t pretty or womanly. Even though it’s what she craves for herself, Elena doesn’t understand that Lila’s difference, her remoteness, her self assurance are the very things that challenge and intrigue the young men of their village. Events conspire to bring Lila to the attention of one of the loathed sons of the village bar owner. The attention is unwanted and, just when she feels she should be helping her friend our, Elena is encouraged to take a holiday for the summer on an island across the bay.
Ferrante writes about the passage from childhood to adolescence and early adulthood well. All the typical rivalries are there, the worrying about appearance, the desperation to have experience without being thought cheap. Tensions bubble between rival groups. And yet, none of it really impressed me. There was little in the section called Adolescence that pulled me fully into the story.
One thing touched me about Elena’s summer experiences on Ischia. She is reunited with the family of Nino, the boy who declared his love for her when they were young children. She spends time with Nino and his sister, hoping that childish love will reblossom. One night, she says she won’t go to the Port with them, choosing to walk on the beach, hoping Nino will choose her over his sister. He doesn’t, and Elena has a crisis of confidence.
There was not a living soul and I began to weep with loneliness. What was I, who was I? I felt pretty again, my pimples were gone, the sun and the sea had made me slimmer, and yet the person I liked and whom I wished to be liked by showed no interest in me.
That’s my 16th year in a nutshell. Liking a boy in sixth form who didn’t know I existed. Who hasn’t been there? Doesn’t everyone have the experience of butting up against unrequited love at some point and not understanding why the love object doesn’t love them back? The matter of fact way Ferrante captures that moment in Elena’s life makes it feel more true than other moments she describes.
It was also true to adolescence that Elena puts all of her worth in her appearance. This couples with her lack of understanding of why men are drawn to Lila who, in Elena’s eyes, is plain. It’s only as an adult that I understand this. I don’t know that I understood it as a teenager, although as a teen who wasn’t the prettiest I was aware that some boys liked me for the things I thought and said and that it felt different to being judged on appearance.
Things intensified in terms of plot after Elena returns early from Ischia, partly because a letter from Lila worries her, partly because of an encounter that is disturbing both for Elena and for us as readers. Lila’s romantic life puts her in a dangerous position, and Ferrante does a good job of ramping up the tension. This was a section of the story that properly gripped me. It felt as though there was something at stake, something to care about. But it soon fizzled out as the danger was abated and people settled into new grooves.
The ending of the book is supposed to be enigmatic, I think. It was a bit cartoonish, though. In a tv adaptation, it would come with a weird sound effect and a camera zoom onto the thing we are meant to be surprised and confused by.
I really wanted to love this book. I wanted it to grab me and pull me into the arms of the next one. Perhaps that was my mistake – expecting too much of it. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t even find in it anything I could settle for. I won’t be hurrying to buy the next in the series. Perhaps I’ll pick it up if it’s on the shelf at the library next time I’m in.
Feel free to tell me below what you think I’ve missed about this book, and why you think it’s great. I’ve read reviews that praise the book for being pared back and spare in its descriptions. This is true, but I didn’t find anything special in it. The writing is good and it’s far from being a bad story. After the things I’d read and the recommendations I’d had, though, I expected it to sparkle. I was disappointed.