Vulture: My Brilliant Friend Recap: La Isla Bonita

On Vulture

Hillary Kelly – Dec 3, 2018

Finally, the sun! For five long episodes Elena’s skin appeared naturally pallid — like a life spent in a dusty Neapolitan apartment complex, head stuck in a book, was only coincidental to her face’s grayish tinge and the slashes of red under her eyes. But, if you’ll pardon about a dozen fashion-magazine cliches, Elena’s new tan gives her a fresh-faced glow. Her eyes suddenly pop. Her pimple-bedeviled skin clears right up. She’s really nailing that whole no-makeup makeup look.

The charm of Ischia is evident from the first moments we see it. It’s a place that was designed to take up residence on bucket lists. Towering stone houses are built right into the cliffs. Water laps right up against the streets leading to the port. Seemingly every window offers a view of the azure Mediterranean, and if there’s ever crappy weather, well, it’s taken its own vacation. There are already Elena Ferrante tours that circle through the island; after the TV series, they should expect a boom.

But the biggest change to Elena during her summer with the sweet, charming Nella — a woman who embodies so many of my own Italian nonna’s characteristics that I wanted to reach through the screen and wrap my arms around her bright, florid smock of a housedress — isn’t simply brought on by the sun. The sun surely shines just as frequently on Naples, which is just a short ferry-ride away from Ischia. It’s the independence, the remove from the grubby halls of her apartment building and the vicious neighborhood feuds, the distance from her mother’s looming presence and, especially, Lila’s towering brilliance and magnetism. It’s apparent from the first moments (can you imagine most 14-year-olds today being permitted to leave their hometown for the first time ever, alone, and make their way to a stranger’s house?) as she climbs the hill to Nella’s pensione, suitcase in hand, that Ischia will work as a tonic on Elena’s young but harried nerves.

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