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Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

16th May, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Here is where the vicious Lila and the demure Elena meet and become best friends even though they are so unlike each other. As they grow older, their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, and the relationship between the two also undergoes many changes. Through the lives of these two girls, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, where friends and enemies inhabit close quarters.

I was fascinated to read this work mainly because of the anonymity of the author- No one actually knows who Elena Ferrante is and where she resides. Also the narrator of the book is a namesake of the author, which makes it even more appealing to read. A big thank you to dear friends Dhanya and Krishnendu for gifting this book.

Review:

My Brilliant Friend’ is the first in the series of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, it tells the story of the friendship and rivalry between Elena Greco and Raffaela “Lila” Cerullo, over decades. The series opens with Elena, aged in her sixties, taking a telephone call from Lila’s son who informs her that Lila has gone missing. The news does not surprise Elena in the slightest, on the other hand it makes her look back on her childhood and adolescence growing up with her lifelong friend during the late 1950s and 1960s.

“Nowhere is it written that you can’t do it.”

The novel in a nutshell is a memoir of Elena – her childhood, her family situation, her aspirations, puppy-loves at school and the innate jealousy and insecurities that accompany the friendship. Both Lila and Elena are extremely gifted students, but Lila is better of the two in her writing skills and ability to grasp knowledge. Their dreams are cut short when Lila has to forego her education while Elena gets to continue school. Lila educates herself with library books. She also taps all her creative energies even when she has to do her part of the household work. Ferrante has beautifully captured the transformation in the relationship between the girls as Lila grows into a beauty while Elena fares well at school, thanks to Lila’s help, but does not turn out to be as attractive.

The character portrayal of Lila is brilliant. She is unpredictable, wild with a zeal to win whatever the odds against her may be. She questions norms, breaks rules and tackles the impossible. She is a character who cannot be generalized, for in some sections she does not want fame (like not even bothering to attend prize giving ceremonies) and sometimes she does (when she designs and creates a shoe). I would read this just to know more about Lila for when she reveals a peel of herself, she hides several complex layers beneath, veiled from  the reader. I so LOVE how Lila shocks you now and then.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The novel talks about so many characters who stay in the same town. I often got confused, but Ferrante’s constant reminders sprinkled throughout the book about each character and their relationship to the other person in conversation/context was very helpful. It helped me to keep a track of all the characters without going through the ordeal of making notes or drawing a family tree.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did not absolutely love it, however I found the read very enjoyable. There were portions when I clearly knew what lies ahead but I had to trudge through a few chapters to see the conclusions in my mind as written word. But the dreary pages did not deter me from reading till the end. I so loved the climax (It was the slap-the-thigh-with-eyes-wide-open kind!!) and look forward to reading the second of the Neapolitan Series. I will put a review of the second book too, very soon. I am pretty sure the married life of Lila and the scholarly life of Elena would be very (VERY) interesting.

Final verdict: Light summery read, perfect to relax with.

Title : My Brilliant Friend
Author : Elena Ferrante
Translated by : Ann Goldstein from Italian
Publisher : Europa Edition (Kindle copy)

Published: 2012
Pages :
331
Rating :
4/5

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My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)

About the Author

Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known. Her books, originally published in Italian, have been translated into English, Dutch, French, and Spanish, among other languages. The Neapolitan Novels are among her most famous works.  She was named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine in 2016. Not much is known about her wherabouts.  One rare interview by her appeared in the  Paris Review.

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This Post Has 32 Comments
  1. I just posted on this yesterday! I agree, I wasn’t as swept away by it as many seem to be, but I did enjoy it. As you say, the character of Lila is fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the quartet.

    1. Oh! I would take a look at your review too. There were so many portions where I felt Ferrante could have cut short, but Lila kept it going. I hope it is a good series. I wouldn’t want to trudge through four big books and finally be dissapointed.

  2. Great review! I am very ambivalent about reading this one because of the hype, and certainly I’ve seen a few more slightly critical reviews appealing. The fact that you tag it as a light summery read tells me a lot! 🙂

    1. I found it nice to read, like watching a TV show perhaps – nothing much to use the brain for reflection, sometimes dragging but enough things to shock you to keep reading. I am not sure whether I understand the hype but I can assure you Lila is a very interesting character. I will be looking forward to your review when you read the book.

    1. It is a good read. And as Valorie pointed out in the comments above, it does document the poverty and hardships of a neighbourhood and the power of the rich who co exist in the same place.

  3. Well, I would not say “light, summery read,” but I’m halfway through part three. Things do get very heavy, but they never get dull. I read there’s going to be a massive television series for Italian television. I’m hoping there’s some way I’ll be able to see it here in the U.S.

    1. Perhaps the heaviness increases as the set of novels progresses. I hope the novels get more interesting with each book. So I have heard. I would be looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

  4. Maybe you have to be much older. I think these books are astounding in their brutal truth. I don’t find them light, but maybe that is in part because my fathers family is southern Italian. I found the books difficult to read at times. Just went to a book club with older Italian women and Ferrante echoed their deep wounds over being denied education and growing up in poverty. These women were electrified by her writing, which is like no one else I’ve ever read.

    1. So glad to hear your perspective of the book, especially since you have your roots in Italy. Ferrante has done a brilliant job in documenting the importance of money and power, as well as the viciousness of human dreams and emotions

    2. I couldn’t agree more. I could really feel Ferrante (if that is who she is and her real name) and really appreciate a lot about Southern Italian history. Difficult and emotional read for me.

      1. Sorry to hear that it was a difficult and emotional read for you. However I am glad you appreciate the writing. I have been very curious about Ferrante after reading her books.The fact that she remains anonymous is truly intriguing.

  5. I have a copy of this one as I have been swayed by the number of good reviews for this quartet – so it’s good to read a balanced review of the book which has informed me of possible less than wonderful moments!

  6. I’ve read the first three in the series and I think that they just get better. I’m kind of holding off on reading the fourth because I don’t want the series to end! But I think I’ll try to get to it before the end of the year so that I don’t forget where I am in the series. I am fascinated by these characters and this place/time.

  7. So intriguing that there’s very little known about the author! The characters in this one sound really fascinating, even if it is a bit clunky in places. I’ll keep it in mind for holiday reading. 🙂

  8. I’ve seen so much buzz around Ferrante recently. She’s such an interesting figure.

    Lila sounds like a great character too. Novels with complex character studies are some of my favorites. Especially when they’re light and “summery” 🙂 Sometimes you’re just in the mood for that kind of book.

  9. I’m not sure about trying this one for myself. Although I do like character driven books and that this one sounds so nice and all – but I am someone who often struggles with translated books for some particular reason. This translation must’ve been good for you to get so much from it though. And I often get confused with names when there is a wide array of characters so it’s good that there were reminders to help you along.

  10. I really enjoyed reading your review! 🙂 I keep hearing so much about this series (the mystique surrounding the author is so intriguing). My library unfortunately does not have an Italian copy, and I’m debating whether or not I should buy the eBook. It does sound like it would be an enjoyable read in the original Italian.

    1. I think it would be delightful in the original language. You should read it in Italian, especially since you know the language. The translation, no matter how good, will never be as true as the original work.

  11. I’m in the middle of MBF, and I am adoring it. You’re right, it’s not always easy to go forward when you have a certain sense of dread of what is coming, but I am awed by how well Ferrante knows how to describe the human psyche. And not just the human psyche, but the teenage girl. So good!

    PS thanks for stopping by Papercuttts!!

    1. Yes, Ferrante’s descriptions are excellent. I loved how she describes the whole neighbourhood with ease and never once confusing the reader even though there are so many characters.

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