Wednesday 16 October 2019

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

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In the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels we are introduced to Elena and Lila in their childhood and adolescence. They live in a poor area of Naples and struggle to balance their desires and the reality of their lives. Both impressively intelligent, they find themselves misplaced and misunderstood in a world where women are not expected to be highly educated. Their family lives drag them in separate directions but they are essential to each other’s existence and manage to maintain their complex relationship through a number of major changes.

From the short prologue we see an older Elena setting out to write their story, almost to spite Lila, giving us an instant sense of how fraught their relationship has been. Throughout the book Elena sees herself as lesser than Lila who she believes to be more intelligent, more beautiful, and yet less likable in their youth. There is a constant sense of competition, of almost wishing Lila ill so that she can shine for a change. There are suggestions too that Lila feels jealousy on occasion and sets Elena up to fail, yet it is only ever Elena’s voice that we hear, we see Lila only through her eyes. Lila is outwardly the less devoted friend – not responding to letters and showing little interest in Elena’s achievements, yet we also see glimmers of how much she relies on Elena when she’s feeling at her most vulnerable.

Ferrante does not shy away from the transformative period of puberty and how challenging it was in the 1950s when it was not openly discussed. Elena feels unattractive as her body changes but is pleased that she reaches certain milestones before her friend. When Lila catches up however, she transforms into a beauty that captures the heart of almost all of their male acquaintances and Elena is left feeling once again that she has been left behind. Marriage and the starting of families happens at a much younger age than the average today and although in itself it is not unusual, Elena struggles with the thought of a man violating her friend, responding by wishing to have the same happen to her simultaneously. The mysteries of sexual maturity help place the action in past generations as the girls are shocked and confused by the arrival of menstruation, completely ignorant in a time when it came with no warning.

Another main theme that runs throughout is the violence of their upbringing. It is woven throughout the story, parents and siblings regularly attacking them, and ongoing feuds and violence between families in their neighbourhood provides a dramatic backdrop. They accept it as part of their lives but Elena does not feel able to hold her own whereas Lila has a more determined, violent streak, thinking nothing of threatening even the most feared men.

A wonderfully well-written novel with characters you won’t want to say goodbye to.

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