“She wrote, in the last pages, of feeling all the evil of the neighborhood all around her. Rather, she wrote obscurely, good and evil are mixed together and reinforce each other in turn. Marcello, if you thought about it, was really a good arrangement, but the good tasted of the bad and the bad tasted of the good, it was a mixture that took your breath away… ‘And I feel that I have to find a solution, otherwise, everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything.'”
-Lena reads a letter from Lila, My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein
In some ways My Brilliant Friend reads like a memoir of growing up in urban poverty, a sort of Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But it lacks the details that make it a “how we lived” sort of book. There’s no mention of finding enough to eat, or the struggle to find clothes or housing, and even the battle to stay in school, also central to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is mentioned but not dwelt on… the problems created by poverty in this book are dirtier, more emotional, visceral, violent. Fathers beat wives and children, mothers scream at daughters, everyone obsesses over social status, feuding, fighting, clinging to the smallest symbol of success as some sort of hope. Set in the fifties, it reminded me a bit of The Outsiders but with a girl narrator and a wandering, episodic plotline. It has the same unflinching narration, every interaction simmering with the possibility of violence.
The narrator, Elena, is insecure, nervous, clever, and brutally honest. The story begins mysteriously- Elena is grown, an adult, and her best friend’s son telephones her to tell her his mother has vanished. Not only is she gone, but everything she owned, every photograph, item of clothing, every accessory. Elena is not surprised, but instead is irritated at her friend, and sets out to recount Lila’s life as a sort of revenge, to prove that there is nothing Lila has erased that Elena cannot reconstruct from memory.
Their friendship is then recounted, with this first novel covering first grade through age seventeen. Elena’s feelings about Lila sound real from the first page. She is fascinated by Lila. Everything she does is to impress her. She would love her, but Lila is almost never vulnerable enough to be loved, so instead Lena idolizes her, competes with her, brags to her, lies to her, all the time a little embarrassed at the hold Lila has over her. Aspects of the story feel like a fairy tale as the girls devise ways to become rich, to break the cycle of desperation and violence endemic in their neighborhood. Lila designs a magical pair of shoes that reappear as a motif throughout the novel (my interpretation above), Elena wakes up at four in the morning to study. Lila’s brother becomes obsessed with making money, and Lila obsesses over his unhappiness. Elena only wants money to be better than Lila, and simultaneously seems to believe that even if this happened it would be impossible. Aspects of Lila’s personality are almost supernatural (such as her utter disapparition in the prologue), but it is unclear whether this is a side-effect of Lena’s perspective or the intended reality of the novel.
I didn’t like Lena much, but I pitied her and shared her fascination with Lila, and that was all it took to move the story forward. The prose is stripped down, yet full of run-on sentences that might be a translator’s style choice and might be Ferrante’s. Lena is relentless at baring her own motives to the reader, but gentle with her acquaintances and friends. Certain aspects of the book remind me of Steinbeck, but I can’t say why or even which ones. It’s been too long since I read his novels. Maybe the treatment of poverty as a backdrop for the extremes of human morality to display themselves… If you’re a fan of his, my gut says you should give this series a shot. It’s not an especially entertaining novel, but it’s an interesting, surprising, and puzzling read that should be taken in small doses to fully appreciate. Read it on the commuter train, or on a trip to Naples, and when you’re done, call your childhood best friend to catch up.