Soul Sisters: Italian Novelist Elena Ferrante’s Mesmerizing Latest, My Brilliant Friend
by Megan O’Grady
October 02, 2012 1:04p.m.
With so many literary heavyweights clamoring for attention this fall, it would be both easy—and a terrible mistake—to miss one more. Italian author Elena Ferrante’s gutsy and compulsively readable new novel, the first of a trilogy, is a terrific entry point for Americans unfamiliar with the famously reclusive writer, whose go-for-broke tales of women’s shadow selves—those ambivalent mothers and seething divorcées too complex or unseemly for polite society (and most literary fiction, for that matter)—shimmer with Balzacian human detail and subtle psychological suspense.
Her talents are in full force in My Brilliant Friend (Europa), translated by Ann Goldstein, which follows the relationship between two women: studious, quietly determined Elena, who narrates, and the canny, enigmatic Lila, beginning with their girlhood outside Naples in the aftermath of World War II. The novel is told in retrospect: In the brief prologue, Elena is in her sixties, living in Turin, when Lila’s son calls to inform her that his mother has disappeared along with her belongings. Even her face has been cut out of family photographs. “Lila is overdoing it as usual,” Elena thinks to herself, more exasperated than alarmed.
And so Elena decides to write Lila’s story, thus thwarting her friend’s effort to erase herself—and, by extension, Elena. Their stories, we understand, are irrevocably intertwined, as are their certain-to-be-divergent paths; the mystery of their fates is precisely what will drive the narrative. At the outset, the girls are eight years old, bright, exuberant sparks against the backdrop of a godforsaken village one can only imagine filmed in an Italian neorealist’s black and white, characterized by its casual violence and grotesqueries, its inhabitants so interconnected that grievances and rivalries fester for generations. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” writes Elena, matter-of-factly. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
In the tiny fishbowl of their community, everything is noticed, especially the lives of young girls, and differences are measured in the smallest of degrees. Lila is the cleverer of the two: Elena must work to excel, while Lila has a fierce native intelligence. Their teacher encourages them both to attend school in the city, but only Elena’s family is willing to pay for their daughter to continue her studies, and the rage-filled teenage Lila is left behind to work in the family business. Eventually, she gives up her books entirely. She rebels by designing elegant shoes no one can afford to buy, and in time, her “beauty of mind,” as their teacher bitterly predicts, finds an outlet “in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it.” But at sixteen, where this installment of their story leaves off, Lila is the dominant, if increasingly warped personality, both the emotional core of Elena’s world and the magnetic pole around which the men in the village are drawn. Page by page, the tension ratchets up, culminating in Lila’s wedding.
One of the more nuanced portraits of feminine friendship in recent memory—from the make-up and break-up quarrels of young girls to the way in which we carefully define ourselves against each other as teens—Ferrante wisely balances her memoir-like emotional authenticity with a wry sociological understanding of a society on the verge of dramatic change. As Nino, Elena’s classmate and an object of her affection, puts it: “Here in Naples we, with all due respect to Don Quixote, have no need to tilt against windmills, it’s only wasted courage: we need people who know how the mills work and will make them work.”