While in a bookstore in Silver Lake (LA) recently I came across some books by an author of whom I had never heard—Elena Ferrante, a Neapolitan novelist. It was the book’s cover that attracted me—a photograph of newlyweds facing the sea, followed by three small girls in pink satin dresses.
From the praise on the book’s back cover, I felt this was a book I must read: “the truest evocation of a complex and lifelong friend between women I’d ever read,”—Emily Gould, author of Friendship; “Eleana Ferrante will blow you away,”—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones; “compelling, visceral, and immediate…a riveting examination of power…the Neapolitan novels are a tour de force,”—Jennifer Gilmore, The Los Angeles Times; and, so on…
This was not faint praise. Indeed, these reviewers had not exaggerated. Reading My Brilliant Friend was one of the most intensely enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had, and I can add my own list of adjectives to describe it—addictive, engrossing, and compelling.
I hated for the book to end but I need not despair, for My Brilliant Friend is the first of four books, so I have three more to devour:
But, before I tell you about My Brilliant Friend, let me tell you something about its author, though, in truth, there is little to tell, because Eleana Ferrante is the pseudonym for a lady who was born in Naples in 1944, and who is considered Italy’s greatest living novelist. Naples is the setting for most of her work.
Naples is on the West Coast of Italy, called the Amalfi Coast, a city build on the mountainside and cupping the sea. Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii are nearby. It has a population of about a million and is the fourth largest urban economy in Italy—the Lonely Planet extolls its archeological treasures and food—the pizza, pasta, coffee, seafood, and pastries.
This the story of Lila and Elena. It begins in the 1950’s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. They live in an apartment complex, populated by various families. Lila is from the Cerullo family; her father Fernando is a shoemaker, as is her older brother Nino.
Elena Greco, the story’s narrator, is the daughter of a porter. Then there are the Carracis, the Pelusos, the Capuccios, the Sarratores, the Solaras, and Maestra Oliviero, the teacher.
I just like to let these names roll off my tongue.
Both of these girls are bright beyond the environment from which they have come. Elena is astonished by Lila’s verve, intelligence and at times malicious behavior.
“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment,” and, “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: It was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was bad.”
This incident from their childhood is emblematic of their friendship. While they were sitting on a grate leading to the dark basement of their building playing with their dolls, Lila flicks Elena’s doll into the basement; Elena says nothing; then she flicks Lila doll into the basement also.
Melina Cappuccio is the mad widow. After her husband dies, she has an affair with Donato Sarratore; after it ends she becomes even more unhinged, but her neighbors look out for her.
Here’s Elena’s description of what happens to her when she begins to become a woman:
“A period of unhappiness began. I got fat, and under the skin of my chest two hard shoots sprouted, hair flourished in my armpits and my pubis, I became sad and at the same time anxious. In school I worked harder than I ever had…I locked myself in the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, naked. I no longer knew who I was…My chest, meanwhile, became large and soft. I felt at the mercy of obscure forces acting inside my body. I was always agitated.”
What’s of particular interest is the way fate plays its hand in the lives of these two girls. Even though Lila may be the brighter of the two, she elects to quit school and help out in her father’s shoe repair store and at home; meanwhile, Elena continues her studies and advances in them, creating disparity between them. Yet, Elena always cares more for Lila than she does for any other person.
For a while Lila studied independently: “As we talked, she showed me proudly all the cards (library cards) she had, four: one her own, one for Rino, one for her father and one for her mother. With each she borrowed a book, so she could get four at once. She devoured them, and the following Sunday she brought them back and took four more.”
“School began again and right away I did well in all the subjects. I couldn’t wait for Lila to ask me to help her in Latin or anything else, and so, I think I studied not so much for school as for her.”
Lila develops late but when she does he become a slender woman of great beauty and intensity, and half the young men in the neighborhood are in love with her. Elena too is beautiful though not as striking as Lila. Marcello Solaras, whose family owns the bar-pastry shop, and thus can afford to drive a fancy car, courts Lila, but she settles her affections upon Stefano, the scion of the grocery store.
At the age of 16, while Elena is continuing her studies and is told by Lila to please continue for her sake too, Lila marries Stefano. I relished this passage from the description of her wedding:
“…when she left with her husband, then a huge fight would erupt, and it would be the start of hatreds lasting months, years, and offenses and insults that would involve husbands and sons, all with an obligation to prove to mothers and sisters and grandmothers that they knew how to be men…”
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