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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Book One of the Neapolitan Novels – Adolescence

Published in Italian and translated into English in 2012, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is the first of the Neapolitan Novels.

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My Brilliant Friend takes place on the fringes of Naples, in the 1950s and into the 1960s. We meet two young girls, Raffaella Cerullo “Lina” and Elena Greco “Lenu” and have the privilege of following their lives for a decade or so. Theirs is a friendship based on an acknowledgement that they are different from the other girls – they are brilliant. They are smart girls who have the intellectual ability to go far. They both excel in primary school, their friendship blossoms.

But, things can change dramatically when girls mature physically and attract the attention of boys and men. Those difficult years of adolescence follow, when so much changes, when there is no control over the changes in your body, and little over your emotions, when everything is felt so desperately.

The importance of the friendship of girls can suddenly seem less important than the need to be admired and desired by a boy. Girls can be cruel, and competitive, and envious and jealous. The best of friendships can be destroyed in an instant when there is completion for the attention of a boy.

Some of the boys have fast cars – some even have fast girls. It didn’t take much in those days to acquire a “reputation”, simply getting into a car with a boy, being seen alone together. Doesn’t mean nothing happens – but it better not be found out.

Of course during the years of this novel there are other changes occurring – the post war economy is growing, some people are prospering, the Kennedys are in residence in the White House, their glamour influencing fashion and style even in this poor Naples neigbourhood. As readers we are quickly immersed in this neighborhood; we come to know the shoemaker’s family, the grocer’s family, and we are witness to the affairs and the fights, the domestic violence that was somehow quite acceptable at the time. It is a world gone now for the most part, but one to which Elena Ferrante has thrown open the doors and let us in to the most intimate thoughts and experiences of her characters.

The friendship of Lina and Lenu changes as time passes, as one girl or the other needs the other more or less. Over time the girls follow different paths into the future, one not necessarily better than the other, but a source of jealousy and envy on both sides.

I discovered Elena Ferrante is a pen name – her identity a well-kept secret. We do know that the author is a woman but the only interview to date is one conducted by her publishers. She reveals that she was born and grew up in the outskirts of Naples, where she has set her novels. Novels that recount the daily lives of those who once lived there – the stories she has thought about for a long time and has now felt the need to write. Stories of adolescent anxieties, amidst the radical changes brought by the 20th century, especially for women.

Elena Ferrante is being touted as the most important writer of her generation in Italy, and I understand why now having read only the first in this quartet of novels. She not only tells a captivating story, she is a writer who carefully considers each word, each sentence, and the result is a novel as seductive to read as the story it tells.   

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