Book review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I read an article about books on female friendship written by Italian novelist Elena Ferante (a pseudonym) whose true identity remains a mystery and was intrigued, so I picked up one of her novels.

They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.

Studious and plain Elena who narrates the story, is in awe of the charismatic Lila, always feeling second best despite her own achievements. As children Elena is the teachers pet and fiery Lila relates to her as competitor and a role model. In adolescence Elena continues to study seeing it as a way to escape her circumstances whilst Lila drops out and pursues marriage as a means to escape her situation.

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.  Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.  Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us

My Brilliant Friend traces the girls relationship and ambitions of rising above their circumstances from childhood through adolescence. It is a story about power and gender relations, the effect of patriarchy and violence, class, and left wing politics and how they influence smart young women trying to make their way in the world.

There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.

Set on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, Ferante’s writing is vivid, authentic and epic. My Brilliant Friend is an uncensored study of female friendship, the first in a series of three novels about the two highly intelligent working class girls with an intense, enmeshed intimate friendship.