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.
As the first book in a trilogy, My Brilliant Friend focuses on the earliest part of Elena and Lila’s lives. It’s a coming of age story of two young women growing up during a period of major change in Naples, though brief forays into their adulthood are also explored (that’s for the other two novels in the trilogy, I suppose). Personally, I loved it because of how well Ferrante captured the intricacies — the jealousies, the unique bonds — of female friendship. It doesn’t hurt that, culturally, it’s Naples brought to life. (As an aside, since no one knows who Ferrante actually is, there’s apparently some debate as to whether she’s even really a female author, or if it’s a male author writing under a female pseudonym; I’m team female author because she just has to be…she knows too much!)
It’s a lovely book, and I look forward to finishing the rest of the trilogy.
My Brilliant Friend was released in September 2012 by Europa Editions. It is the first in the Neapolitan trilogy by Elena Ferrante; the last book in the trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, was released in September 2014.