Elena Ferrante is one of the publishing world’s biggest mysteries of the moment. Despite her great sales and critical success, no one seems to know who the woman (if she really is a woman) is. There is even speculation that her four-book Neapolitan series is more of a memoir than a novel serialization. And there is little doubt that all of the mystery surrounding Ferrante and her books has increased the attention they are getting. All that said, if the first book in the Neapolitan series, 2012’s My Brilliant Friend, is any indication, the series is indeed a strong one, and the books are capable of standing on their own.
My Brilliant Friend introduces two little girls who first meet in the early 1950s in a poor neighborhood just outside Naples. Elena (the book’s first person narrator) and Lila are two of the brightest students in their neighborhood school and, being top candidates for the school’s highest honors, their relationship soon becomes more a friendly rivalry than a friendship. Elena, though, is a bit intimidated by the ease with which Lila seems to acquire and display her knowledge. After a while, Elena is content to be number two to Lila’s number one and that is the only achievement she really strives for.
The novel actually opens in the present, with both women now in their sixties and still friends of a sort. It seems that Lila has disappeared without a trace and that her son, after waiting two full weeks, has decided finally to call Elena to see if she knows where Lila could be. Ferrante uses this opening segment to segue neatly into how the women first met and how their decades-long relationship slowly evolved over time. My Brilliant Friend is, in fact, a coming-of-age narrative for both our narrator and for her supposed closest friend, Lila.
|Author Elena Ferrante|
Elena and Lila live in a very self-contained little neighborhood in which everyone knows and tracks the intimacies of everyone else. Certain families, it seems, made their fortunes during and just following World War II, a period that left Italy in the kind of chaos in which huge profits could be made from a thriving black-market. Those families are still the most powerful ones in the neighborhood – and they are not to be crossed. As the girls make their way through childhood and adolescence, they experience the usual emotions and pains of those phases of life. Sometimes they are intimate friends, but at other times they barely speak for weeks, or even months. They and their friends have good times, but life is easy for none of them.
Ferrante has created a wide cast of well developed characters in My Brilliant Friend that will serve her well for the next three books in the series. Speculation as to whether or not the books are based on Ferrante’s own life and memories offers a little twist to reading her, but that doesn’t really matter. What counts most is that she is one heck of a storyteller. This is literary fiction at its best.