BOOK REVIEW | My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante | Book Two of the Neapolitan Novels

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

My thoughts:
We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.

I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “masterpiece” to describe a book before, but Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend may just change that. I can’t recall the last time I was so quickly swept away by a book – I didn’t want to put it down. Ferrante’s depiction of female friendship is raw and powerful, but above all, real. Ferrante’s honesty, combined with the violent and impovroshed 1950’s Italian neighbourhood in which these characters live, makes for a truly engaging read.

My Brilliant Friend follows Elena and Lila from their childhood into their adolescence, and the reader experiences many of the things you’d expect young girls to go through during these formative years. Their friendship is wrought with tension, jealousy, competition, self-doubt, and arrogance – though, on the other hand, we see genuine moments of tenderness and kindness. Much like any long term relationship, Elena and Lila’s friendship is complex.

Oh, and Lila is tough as nails. I love this moment when Lila seeks to protect Elena from the older neighborhood boys:

She showed me the sharp shoemaker’s knife that she had taken from her father’s workshop. “They won’t touch me, because I’m ugly…but with you they might. If anything happens, tell me”.

My Brilliant Friend examines the significance of education during a time when it wasn’t seen as necessecary.

My mother wanted the stationer to take me in as an assistant: in her view, clever as I was, I was suited to selling pens, pencils, notebooks, and schoolbooks.

The contrast of Elena’s formal education with Lila’s self-teaching was fascinating, and I can’t wait to see how this dichotomy continues throughout the series. This book, after all, is just as much about class struggle than it is about Elena and Lila.

Elena Ferrante is in herself a fascinating figure; she has chosen anonimity, leaving her work to speak for itself. I cannot wait to continue with the Neapolitan novels to see where she takes us next.

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