My Brilliant Friend is definitely not my usual kind of book. I’m much more likely to be found with a fantasy novel than a grand piece of translated literary fiction. But I’ve had it recommended to me so many times recently (despite not actually having heard of it before) that I thought that maybe I should step out of my comfort zone and try it. Perhaps that’s a good reading resolution for this year, alongside trying to read the books that I buy!
My Brilliant Friend is part of a quartet of books by Italian author Elena Ferrante. The books chart the friendship and lives of Elena and Lila growing up in a tough neighbourhood in Naples, Italy. The books are told from the point of view of Elena as an adult, who despite her young age at the start of the book is remarkably insightful, intelligent and eloquent in her observations of the world she grows up in. Lila is whip smart and beautiful but doesn’t necessarily have all of the advantages that could be afforded to her. She is the one who leads and is in control in the friendship. Lena is possibly slightly less smart and pretty (although she is the narrator and can be a little down on herself) but she has chances and opportunities that Lila doesn’t have. They support one another and their understanding of the world develops through each other. Both have a strong desire to get away from the violence and fear that they’ve experienced growing up. Their friendship is of the utmost importance and it’s utterly amazing. The first book takes place with Lena looking back over her life from about the age of 4 to 16.
It’s hard for me to sum up my feelings over this book. I think I loved it but I’ve never read anything like it before. It’s so expansive, like so much happens and so little at the same time. So much care has been put into Elena’s inner monologue, but to me it never feels boring or unnecessary. It feels like a privilege to sit in on her thoughts, witness her growing up and her friendship with Lila. Not everything that happens in the book is nice, but nothing feels forced or added for dramatic effect. Everything that’s included is neccessary and creates a truly immersive and believable world. The ending I suppose is a cliffhanger, although really it’s like having the rug pulled from under your feet. All I know now is that I definitely have to read the next book, I can’t leave Elena and Lila without knowing what happens to them. It’s without a doubt the most compelling book that I’ve read recently.
A few words for the translator too: you’ve done a truly amazing job.
Have you been inspired to give it a go? What did you think? Let me know.