Alright, it’s time for another Bibliophiles Review with Trilby and Charlotte! This week we’re discussing My Brilliant Friend, a modern masterpiece by one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors: Elena Ferrante. The story begins in the 1950’s in a poverty-striken neighborhood in Naples and is narrated by Elena, an impressionable woman who recalls her Neapolitan childhood with keen attention to detail. Her “brilliant friend” was Lila, the daughter of a shoemaker. Lila served as Elena’s polar opposite, a street-smart, naturally gifted “go-getter.” As the novel moves along, the two friends are offered different opportunities for adulthood, though their friendship remains an unforgettable source of inspiration. The book is driven by its fascinating characters, who continuously make surprising choices.
Charlotte: Ferrante’s writing style is gripping from the start. Elena begins writing the tale of her friendship with Lila after the latter vanishes at the age of 66. Already, we’re met with a mystery, but it’s the way Elena writes about Lila and their young life in Naples that’s electric.
Trilby: This is probably the most profound depiction of friendship that I’ve ever read; confronting in the best way possible. I found Elena’s recollections of Lila to be devastating at times, but so meaningful due to the fact that Lila really shaped the trajectory of Elena’s professional and personal life.
Charlotte: I think any woman who’s ever had a best friend can relate to this story. Elena and Lila have a closeness that makes them both feel like they have a magical world to themselves, but it turns brutal at times.
Trilby: I found Elena’s early descriptions of Lila to be particularly striking. Elena meets Lila in first grade, where she immediately strikes Elena as being sharp and fierce. As Elena is more of a passive character, the two friends complement one another. I also liked how the novel pivoted at a certain point, where the naturally gifted Lila is forced to give up her academic studies, and Elena is offered an opportunity to study further. Although their character dynamic is heartbreaking, Lila really paved the way for Elena to become the impressive figure she turned out to be.
Charlotte: Elena wants Lila to come with her and study, but she also continually brings up that some kind of dichotomy exists between them: when one suffers, the other flourishes. And you’re right, it’s one of the more heartbreaking threads in the novel. Both women face the same issues as well, which are pervasive through My Brilliant Friend. The first is poverty. Their Naples neighborhood is characterized by its poverty, with education as one of the only escapes.
Trilby: Indeed, both characters overcome tremendous hardships that start at a very young age. For instance, Lila has to teach herself to read when her mother is unable to help.
Charlotte: Both Elena and Lila’s parents didn’t go beyond elementary school. They go back and forth between resenting their daughters’ possible education and hoping for it. Of course, in the end, the decision falls to the men. Lila’s father refuses to allow her to continue to study. Elena’s father relents largely due to Maestra Oliverio, Lila and Elena’s school teacher.
Trilby: I found it inspiring that although Lila is no longer attending classes, her love for Elena is so much that she acts as a free tutor, and Elena is really propelled toward success. The two women are incredibly strong. I was also relieved that the story didn’t dissolve into sentimentality, even with the rather sober narration.
Charlotte: I was surprised Lila did that. She is a truly unpredictable character. Not always easy to like, but always fascinating to read! The other element of the story I feel it may be necessary to warn about is violence. Early in the novel, Elena writes about how early they learn to fear death. Even though it’s the 1950s in their youth, it seems very old world in Naples, almost medieval at times. People die of preventable things like mild illnesses, but also of violence. A murder occurs early on in the novel, but violent themes continue, particularly the consistent violence and threat of violence toward women. Did the violence mark the story for you?
Trilby: Absolutely. I was shocked by the fact that domestic violence was a daily occurrence. It’s a quite a confronting element of the novel. And due to the violence, there is a longing to escape amongst the women. I found that to be particularly devastating.
Charlotte: It also provoked questions as to why Lila later disappears.
Trilby: Yes, the fact that it’s open ended left me with a sense of my own longing, though I was so gripped by Lila’s fierce character that I got the impression she was okay, wherever she was.
Charlotte: She seems incredibly independent, despite the era she’s coming up in. And Elena finds that so much of her bravery is sourced from what she sees in Lila. That’s a beautiful statement on friendship! Our friends make us better, they give us things we don’t always believe we have in ourselves.