It is hard to write individual reviews of these books, because they are all one big novel, and because they are remarkably consistent in terms of quality – if anything, the series improves as it goes, but perhaps I simply grew more invested in the characters. (Meanwhile, the covers are consistently godawful; somewhere out there is a marketer who needs a new calling.)
At any rate, this is the one where Elena goes to high school and then college – a remarkable achievement for a girl from a neighborhood where even middle school is reserved for the best and brightest – and Lila wrangles with a terrible marriage that nonetheless provides precious economic security. It’s also the book with the 100-page trip to Ischia – yes, it’s interesting material and important to the story, but maybe not quite that important.
That, however, is my biggest gripe about a book that is an excellent continuation of the story begun in My Brilliant Friend. The principals are complex, three-dimensional characters, now old enough to make adult decisions and mistakes; the writing brilliantly captures the nuances of the characters’ lives and relationships; the setting comes to life so clearly that the author must have known it firsthand. Of all the books, this is the one where Elena’s and Lila’s lives evolve most clearly in counterpoint. And while Lila is the more fiery of the two, Elena’s story is so closely observed that it never failed to fascinate me: it is a raw, honest tale of a great student struggling to cross class lines, and full of obstacles that would be easy for an observer to miss, from the neighborhood boyfriend with whom Elena will clearly never get ahead, to the simple fact that no one she knows reads a newspaper.
At any rate, this book is just as gripping, vivid and electric as the first – again, it feels real, not simply another mass-produced novel using the same old techniques to achieve predictable effects. I absolutely recommend this series (and yes, you must read them in order or they will not make sense).