Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the Neapolitan novels by Ferrante. Set in Naples in the 1950s it is the account of two friends growing up in a poor Italian neighborhood outside of the seaside town. It was recommended to me by a college friend and I took the bait and requested it from the library, both in hard copy and eBook versions. It is quite a popular book and it took a few weeks before a copy was available. 

The novel opens with a troubling phone call from Rino, Lila's brother, to Elena questioning whether she has seen or heard from her friend. Elena sees this as another one of Lila's idiosyncrasies and doesn't seem too worried. From this opening chapter, the narrator remembers her days as a child growing up. She recounts their friendship from age eight to about sixteen in a world that is filled with turmoil, violence and the love and hate of family. As close as the two friends are, they are at times polar opposites. Lila is the beauty who is bright and intelligent. Elena is plain, pimply, and  always worried about her body image, bookish and a hard working student. At a time it was unusual for girls to go to school, Elena, with the help of Maestra Oliverio, convinces her parents that it is in her best interest to continue to attend beyond the primary grades. 

As the story unfolds, the girls develop different interests amid the backdrop of often times brutal fits of anger, temper, and even murder. It does not seem to be an anomaly, but rather a way of life that is expected and customary. My Brilliant Friend builds to the culmination of the story as Lila prepares for her wedding day. But the reader is left wondering whether that marriage will be one of joy or troubled as so many were in that small village. 

I have had an ambivalent reaction to the book. There were times as I was reading it that I really got into the book and story and then at other times I just couldn't wait until I finished it. I will probably pick up the 2nd in the series at sometime, but at this point I am not longing to read it.