Published: October 28, 2015
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is book one of a subtle, jarring, beautiful, and difficult series that chronicles the friendship of Elena and Lena as they grow up together in a working-class neighborhood in 1950s Naples. The events of the novel play out as straightforward as do the events of life – their progression can be charted linearly, no matter the emotional and spiritual complications behind them, because life is unstoppable. The book’s complexity lies in its simultaneously delicate and unflinching exploration of their reactions to outwardly simple events. A person is just as easily held hostage to the petty jealousies of adolescence as she is to her seemingly inescapable station in life. The tragic beauty of the novel is in the way it which it explores how Lila and Elena use each other to grow up. Their relationship is tumultuous because the person you’re closest to can also seem like the person you’re furthest from. (The fact that Ferrante is a pen name and that the author’s real identity is essentially unknown makes the lessons in the book seem all the more universal but also much more personal, and haunting in both respects.)
I am both in awe of this book and a little annoyed for similar reasons. All of the right reviewers have said amazing things about Ferrante’s series, and I stand by their accolades, but I am put off by the way in which their reviews reinforce the scholarly parameters of what constitutes a good novel. While the events of this novel are obviously specific to a certain place and time, the themes and struggles are universal – so why is yet another exploration of the human condition applauded when everyone everywhere experiences similar emotions every day? Why is genre fiction laughable to lovers of serious fiction when serious fiction merely elucidates what are inevitable realizations and occurrences in a reader’s own, real life? Maybe I am anxious about the apparently unresolved confusions of my own adolescence, and am prodded to reflect on that time at length (and what it indelibly taught me about life) when reading My Brilliant Friend. I suppose readers can understand their lives better after considering the insights put forth by a great Novel, but why does this also mean that other approaches the novel are taken less seriously, or that the author of a Great Novel is taken to be somehow more authoritative than the average person experiencing the same things the author writes about?
Either way, it’s a petty complaint and I am well into the second book, The Story of a New Name, and am very much looking forward to the rest of the series. I haven’t been reading a lot of novels lately, and certainly none of this persuasion, but I’m very glad to do so.