My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1) - Elena Ferrante

I first became interested in this book and series after reading an article in the New York Times Book Review that incorporated passages from the text(s). The portrait of friendship between women and no-nonsense yet elegant writing drew me in, and, after reading My Brilliant Friend, both remain my favorite features of the novel, alongside the nesting-like structure at the beginning especially.


The title is assumed to refer to Lila, the protagonist's precocious, unique, and oft-manipulative friend, but a line near the end of the novel spoken by Lila to Elena (the protagonist) reveals the title to be (also) about Elena. This says much about the story, Elena, and friendship between women. Elena idolizes and envies Lila, and as a reader I wanted to shake her out of it, to stop comparing, to live her own life always, even as I recognized those feelings. I also came to envy, respect, but also side-eye Lila, who remains somewhat mysterious through Elena's pov. The two need each other, and their relationship is both a source of strength and occasionally toxic. At the very least, it's complex.


One element that draws the two together is their shared, poor neighborhood in Naples, which affects their ability to receive a decent education or go anywhere in life. When Lila becomes engaged to a comfortably monied merchant, her shift in class is a source of conflict as it is when Elena is permitted to attend school beyond the obviously brilliant and talented Lila.


Ferrante's prose feels muscled; she's got a strong voice that observes finely. Much of the novel circles around with its structure, beginning with the framed from the present story of Elena and Lila as children ascending the stairs of an infamous local don to retrieve their dropped dolls. The narrative goes back and forth to and from that and other moments, explaining more each time. The structure adds mystery and layers, and I read the book in big clumps as a result.


I'm certainly going to read the next novel in the series, and likely the whole thing.