I gobbled My Brilliant Friend down in a very short amount of time in order to finish it for a book club discussion only for the discussion to be moved, leading me to wish I had spent a bit more time digesting this book as I read.
Since I’ve been spending most of my reading time diving into an ebook version of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, I decided to download an audiobook version of My Brilliant Friend. Unfortunately, a digital audiobook download was unavailable from my library during my time crunch to complete the book, so I signed up for Downpour. Downpour is an audiobook subscription service that allows you to download one audiobook title per month for $12.99. After you purchase the title, it’s yours and won’t disappear from your library after you cancel your subscription like another popular audiobook service *cough*. I really, really liked the service and am looking forward to continuing to get a new audiobook download each month.
Unfortunately, I don’t think an audiobook version of My Brilliant Friend really did the story justice. I frequently found myself zoning out while listening to this book and felt very detached from the story. If you’re going to read this book, definitely opt for a print or ebook version. This book is the debut in the Neapolitan Novels series by the mysterious Elena Ferrante.Ferrante is the pen name of a mysterious Italian author who only communicates with her publisher and the press through letters because she believes that truly great writing doesn’t need promotion of a likable author. The aura of the mysterious author definitely contributes to the allure of the book as I was left wondering how autobiographical the tale was, which I may never learn the answer to.
The novel follows the lives of two girls, Elena (last name Greco, not Ferrante) and Lila, as they grow up in the outskirts of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. The story begins when the girls are in primary school and follows their friendship and individual lives and ends with one of the girls getting married in her late teens. The story is told from the perspective of Elena, a girl who is enamored with her brilliant friend and is constantly balancing her jealousy of and affection for Lila. This balance felt very true to female friendship that I experienced as I came to age — wanting to possess certain aspects of your friend’s personality or lifestyle, while also feeling lucky to be surrounded by great friends. The tale of their friendship is the central point of this story that holds all of the other details together and makes me wonder what will happen in the subsequent novels after one of the two friends becomes married.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the lives of our two central characters begins to dovetail as Elena is allowed to continue her education, while Lila, despite being incredibly smart and showing desire to continue her education, is regulated to working in the family business.The inequality in access to education and opportunities heavily influences each of their subsequent decisions and life paths.
There is a lot more going on in this story aside from brilliantly detailing a female friendship and their access to education, but I found myself zoning out when the audiobook delved into the other aspects of Lila and Elena’s world. There is a lot of violence surrounding the neighborhood where the girls grow up and there are hints of ties to the Italian mafia sprinkled in, but because of my zoning out and my lack of familiarity with Italian history during this period, I didn’t fully soak up these subtle references.
Overall, read this book if you have some time to fully imagine the world surrounding these characters and absorbing the details of their friendship. However, the book is definitely not the beach read that the American cover and surrounding press seems to be marketing it as.