In preparation for my trip this past summer, I knew that Elena Ferrante (the alias of a bestselling Italian author whose identity remains a unknown) was at the top of my list of Italian authors to check out. My Brilliant Friend narrowed my choices down even further: it’s set in Naples and is the first book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy (the last book in the trilogy was recently published). Once I actually got to Naples, it was so easy to imagine the characters in this book come to life in Ferrante’s world.
Set in the 1950s in an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, My Brilliant Friend is a meditation on female friendship. Elena and Lila are unlikely best friends; both are smart but poor. Lila especially has an unnaturally sharp intelligence that sets her apart from her peers, but her background and attitude hold her back. Since people had to pay to keep attending classes through high school, Lila’s parents simply refuse to keep sending her. Elena’s parents are shamed into coming up with the money to keep Elena in school, so the girls’ paths start to diverge, but they keep coming back to each other even though their lives start to take on very different shapes.