One of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, Elena Ferrante is not well known in the U.S. My Brilliant Friend, the first in a projected trilogy, may change that. The setting is the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. Ferrante draws an indelible picture of the city’s mean streets and the poverty, violence and sameness of lives lived in the same place forever.
The story begins in the present day, when 66-year-old Lenù receives a phone call from the son of her lifelong friend, Lila. Decades ago, Lila said she wanted to disappear without a trace; it appears she finally has. Lenù casts her memory back half a century; their friendship began when they walked up a dark flight of stairs to confront Don Achille about stealing their dolls. He is the neighborhood monster, so this foray sets the stage for Lila being the fearless one and Lenù following along, a pattern that repeats frequently over the years. “I did many things in my life without conviction,” Lenù recalls. “Lila, on the other hand… had the characteristic of absolute determination.”
Their neighborhood, isolated from the rest of the world, has become ingrown, hostile, jealous and vengeful. Both girls are excellent students but Lila is prevented from attending school. Instead, she helps her father in his shoe shop and her mother at home. Her life is laid out for her: marriage, motherhood, poverty and unhappiness, with no escape. Lenù is fostered by one of her teachers and continues to attend school despite her parents’ initial reluctance; she even travels to Ischia to visit the teacher’s cousin. It’s a different world–one that gives her a great tan, dries up her acne and provides her sexual awakening.
Things for both girls do not go exactly as planned. Lila chooses a husband considered wealthy by neighborhood standards, thereby ensuring financial support for her father and brother’s entrepreneurial desires. She preens and struts, now well-dressed and a homeowner–so why does she disappear?
Lenù, on the other hand, who has put all her eggs in the intellectual basket, discovers that she has no one to talk to, no appropriate suitor who wants her. Where will life take her?
Ferrante, a fierce writer and a Neapolitan, is well versed in the blood feuds that last for centuries, class divides, passions unchecked, murder unpunished and the lust for money. Even in Naples, however, things are changing, as the sequels to My Brilliant Friend are sure to reveal.
-Valerie Ryan, September 18, 2012
Shelf Talker: A story of two girls becoming women in mid-20th-century Naples, a world unto itself.