My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)
Europa Editions, 2012
Genre: Fiction, memoir
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I don’t know if this book has enough substance to make it worth rereading.
Reviewed by Pete
As a fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, My Struggle, I felt an obligation to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Though her series can be found in the fiction section and reads very much like a novel (like My Struggle), it has some autobiographical elements as well.
Elena Greco and her friend Lila Cerullo live in a suburb of Naples, Italy that is filled with families with long and complex histories. There is a character guide at the beginning of the book that was extremely helpful, though quickly became familiar with the large cast of characters.
The two friends are both intelligent and ambitious, and their friendship is fueled by competition that can be quite cruel. I have a bit of an understanding of the strange dynamics of some female friendships, but this book showed exactly how one of these friendships operates and how insidious the dark, competitive side of female friendship can be.
Ferrante’s writing is streamlined and powerful, and she chooses unusual details to illustrate a scene. There are a few moments when the translation seems a bit off, but never to the point of being confusing. As a first-person narrative, we follow Elena and her thoughts closely, but there were a couple of scenes that Elena wasn’t present in and couldn’t have been present in. It isn’t clear how she witnessed these scenes, and this disrupted the flow of the story for me.
Though I was drawn in by the strange, cruel friendship between Elena and Lila, I was very disappointed by the last third of the book. I read this book very quickly, at first because I was enthralled, and then because I was eager to be done with it.
While a majority of the novel focuses on the friendship, Elena’s studies, and Elena’s coming of age, the last third of the story seems to do away with these themes and deal only with the drama of the town. We’re given several chapters about Elena’s teenage love life, one after the other. Lila’s own romances are given just as much scrutiny. There is plenty of drama in the town, and plenty of boys fighting over girls.
Minor spoilers for the ending below:
The final sentence of the book (which introduces a plot twist) feels like a slap to the reader’s face, punctuating that drama and gossip is the meat of the story, rather than Lila and Elena as individuals. Since I was completely uninterested in the soap-opera-like drama of the story, this ending was as unsatisfying as they come.
Because this is a story about childhood and young adulthood, I expected there to be a good portion of the book devoted to young love. But toward the end, the story seems to be ultimately more about the drama than about the fascinating characters that Ferrante has given us.