I found this book in a Free Little Library (with apologies to all my librarian friends who just screamed, “all libraries are free!”) and pulled it out because I was aware of Elena Ferrante’s cause celebre in the literature world. Basically, “Elena Ferrante” is a penname for an author who does not wish to be known, happy to publish her novels as anonymously as possible. This does not sit well with certain parties, including many academics. Unlike previous penname chosen for reasons of saturating the market (Stephen King’s use of Richard Bachman in the 80s) or because the author was publishing in a very different style and genre (J.K. Rowling’s mysteries), Ferrante specifically wants anonymity because she believes the books should stand on their own and what does it matter who the author is.
Not surprisingly, this attitude infuses My Brilliant Friend with some questions. Is the Elena Greco who is the first person narrator a straight stand in for “Elena Ferrante” (even as a possible maiden name, as we have to assume Greco to become married at a later time)? Is this book then a memoir rather than a novel? Or is it just part of the game of the anonymous author who is thus creating both the author and the narrator? Ah, metafiction, how I do love thee.
But let’s ignore all that and focus on the text alone, as requested by Elena. The prologue to this book is set in a present time when the narrator and her friend is much older. Her friend’s son calls up because his mother has disappeared. While not unusual, this time she has been gone for weeks. Even more importantly, this time she has taken all of her possessions with her—or at least disposed of them in such a way that there is no trace of her existence left in the home. This supplies the impetus for the narrator to sit down and write this tale, reconstructing everything about her friend, at least in print, that her friend wishes to erase from the world.
Then we get to the meat of the book. As someone who tends to read more fantastical works (i.e., science fiction and fantasy), you’d think My Brilliant Friend would bore me to tears, but very much like the work of Robertson Davies, who could take the small town life of Canada and find interest and excitement in it (particularly in his first trilogy, the Salterton books, before he started exploring the metaphysical through the works of Jung), Ferrante has a method of making this exploration of poor families living in Naples in the 1950s quite compelling. Part of it is the narrator herself, who is a strange combination of follower of her friend Lila and also driven to be something more than her mother; the other is Lila, an odd self-minded girl who becomes a lovely young woman during the course of this first book (for it is part of a four-book series). The interplay between Elena and Lila drives the book, just as it drives their lives.
Frankly, 1950s Naples is about as removed from my experience as a book can get, and I read it as I would any SFF book, learning about the culture and people in bits and pieces like the best “show don’t tell” novel about aliens. It’s a brutal world, where parents beat their children, where siblings fight with their fists, where children throw rocks at each other, where spouses hurl abuse and slaps and sometimes worse, and where families are pitted against other families in part because of class differences (i.e., the more well-to-do are both to be envied and hated) as well as the history of what those families and their older members engaged in during World War II. Much of this book is taken up with the struggle of both Elena and Lila to educate themselves, a difficulty given that Italy did (does?) not have free education and because of their gender.
The ending ends on a quasi-cliffhanger. It makes sense within the context of what has gone before. Something happens during Lila’s wedding that underscores power relationships between herself and her new husband, between her family and his, and between those families and the community. But, even more, it’s a harbinger for the next book, where we know things will not go smoothly for poor Lila, even though she’s become the belle of the ball. And thus, it also reminds us of the prologue and her desire to erase herself from this world.
I’m not sure I’m ready for the next book quite yet, although if I came across it in a Little Library, I’m sure I’d pull it out.