For as many guys as I have been friends with over as many years, I reluctantly maintain that there is something uniquely intimate about a close friendship between women. It is inevitably a companionship against the world, a kinship based on shared experience and perspective and mutual trust as regards an ever-expanding litany of secret thoughts and hopes and fears. Perhaps it is because of this almost inherent intensity that lady BFF relationships are also so often fraught, so frequently burdened by unspoken resentments or unfounded suspicions, by anger or envy. Women know what they’re up against in the world, and sometimes it’s easy to forget who’s on your side.
I haven’t read many novels that truly capture the complexity of these friendships—I’m sure they’re out there, I just haven’t read them—but it’s hard not to feel that in My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante has done it better than most. The story of Elena and Lila, childhood pals who grow up together in 1950s Naples, is the story of so many fast friends, girls who share dolls and schoolbooks but soon find themselves competing for attention, validation and approval. Here, there is the added backdrop of a place and time in which women were held to the highest morale standard and the lowest intellectual expectation. To advance one’s education at all, let alone as a girl, was far from a given.
The daughter of a shoemaker, Lila is scrappy and smart, often too smart for her own good. Elena, the daughter of a porter, is intelligent but industrious; hers is knowledge earned through diligence. As the girls become friends, they are bound by their shared cleverness—for years after, Elena will think of Lila as the benchmark for witty banter—but also inevitable adversaries. Lila is vivacious and magnetic in a way that only grows with age. Elena is scrupulous but plain, and almost worshipful of Lila (who can be cutting and manipulative) until the power dynamic in their relationship begins to shift. In Elena’s words (italics mine):
At the start of the summer I began to have a feeling difficult to put into words. I saw that she was agitated, aggressive as she had always been, and I was pleased. I recognized her. But I also felt, behind her old habits, a pain that bothered me. She was suffering, and I didn’t like her sorrow. I preferred her when she was different from me, distant from my anxieties. And the uneasiness that the discovery of her fragility brought me was transformed by secret pathways into a need of my own to be superior. As soon as I could, cautiously, especially when Carmela Peluso wasn’t there, I found a way to remind her that I had gotten a better report card. As soon as I could, cautiously, I pointed out to her that I would go to middle school and she would not. To not be second, to outdo her, for the first time seemed to me a success.
This isn’t the first time Ferrante has crushed it on a complicated interpersonal relationship. InThe Days of Abandonment, she captured the dissolution of the marriage between Olga and Mario, and the former’s regression into nervous breakdown territory as the latter takes up with a new woman. But where TDAA is raw and succinct, MBF is expansive, full of characters and backstories and descriptions. It is a story not just of Lila and Elena, but of a neighborhood and its people and their dynamics, and how those dynamics also ultimately shaped this core friendship. There are times when the cast of characters can be hard to remember (though the book has a handy list) but over time they become familiar, like the cast of a high-budget HBO drama, or a Martin Scorsese mafia movie.
My Brilliant Friend is also more subdued than The Days of Abandonment, perhaps in part because it’s the first of four novels about Lila and Elena, and takes us only through their late teens. By the end of it, Ferrante still has much more life to get to—the final book in the series,The Story of the Lost Child, came out earlier this year. And while it’s clear from the last chapters of MBF that Lila and Elena grow apart as they grow older, I can only hope their friendship—like so many inexplicably knotty female friendships—endures.