Vanity Fair: My Brilliant Friend: A Summer on the Beach—Without Lila

In Episode 6, Elena discovers herself by the sea.

On Vanity Fair

Sonia Saraiya – Dec 3, 2018

We’ll be recapping each episode of My Brilliant Friend. This recap is written by someone who has read (and loved) the original books, but there will be no spoilers for future plot points. New episodes are airing Sunday and Monday nights, through December 10.

The pages spent on Ischia in My Brilliant Friend, the book, are a bit tiresome. But on screen, the value of Elena’s (Margherita Mazzucco) time on the sunlit isle is immediately apparent. The claustrophobic rione, with its color-leached grays and browns, is a universe away from the turquoise water and verdant slopes of Ischia, an island within the city limits of Naples. Elena’s hair lightens; her acne disappears; her skin glows from the sun. In the time between when Elena first goes swimming and when the English visitors leave, presumably a few weeks later, Elena is so altered that at first I thought Mazzucco had been re-cast.

Maestra Oliviero (Dora Romano) presses Elena’s family to send her away to Ischia because of her prejudice against the neighborhood; the more promise Elena demonstrates at school, the more Oliviero feels the need to safeguard her from the “bad influences” of her childhood home. But although Ischia is a haven of sorts—a vacation from the claustrophobic power struggles of the neighborhood, as well as the judgmental eye of her mother—it’s still subject to the brutal hierarchies of Rione Luzzatti. Elena is glad to see the Sarratore family, and especially glad for the opportunity to spend time with Nino (Francesco Serpico). But her joy masks the awkwardness of her position—her role as both the hired help and a competent classmate, and her position as both a girl to be parented and one to be desired. The episode illuminates both the crystalline beauty of her first time living alone by the sea and the creeping dread of her vulnerability.

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