Saturday, December 5, 2015

My Brilliant Friend

Title:  My Brilliant Friend
Author:  Elena Ferrante (author), Ann Goldstein (translator)
Publication Information:  Europa Editions. 2011 (original), 2012 (translation). 331 pages.
ISBN:  1609450787 / 978-1609450786

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for one of the local book groups to which I belong.

Opening Sentence:  "This morning Rino telephoned"

Favorite Quote:  "There were no written rules, everyone knew that was how it was."

Elena who is Lenu. Raffaella who is Lila. Friends for over sixty years. Best friends? Still friends? It's unclear.

The story begins at what I think is the beginning of the end. Elena lives in Turin. Lila has, to Elena's knowledge, never left Naples. However, now, Lila has disappeared. Elena's reaction, "Lila is overdoing it as usual" and "We'll see who wins this time."

So begins this story within a story. If Lila wants to vanish, then Elena is going to write down their story to ensure that all the details are remembered. She will not allow Lila and the memories to vanish.

Lila and Elena meet in first grade. This first book, the first in the quartet of the Neapolitan novels, takes the reader from that age to when the girls are sixteen. Through Elena's eyes, we see her rough neighborhood outside of Naples, the relationships between individuals and families, and the power plays in the community. We see the dependency and the competition between Elena and Lila.  Through the beautiful writing, we see a world come alive visually.

Interestingly, however, the story does not read as if it is an adult's reflection on her past. The story goes back into the past and is told as if occurring at that time. It is a child's perspective on childhood and her community - sometimes loving, sometimes harsh and cruel, and always with a hint of meanness running throughout. It is that meanness that gives the book is sad and sometimes depressing tone. In a story of friendship and childhood, is there not at least some joy and are there not playful moments? Not in this book.

Everything in this book is seen through the lens of Elena's perspective. It is her reality, but perhaps it would not be reality told through another perspective - Lila's or anyone else's? It is an intriguing question. Is Elena a reliable narrator? How the story would differ if told through a different narrator?

I am also left wondering at the end who is the "brilliant friend." Is it Elena with her ability to go to school and to excel at her studies? Is it Lila who is self-taught and who seems to be a survivor in the tough life that is hers? Does that answer again depend on perspective?

The book often reads like a memoir. Is it a coincidence that one of the main characters is named Elena? The author "Elena Ferrante" herself is a mystery. First of all, the name is a pen name. Although a prolific and very popular author in Italy, little is known about her. She is protective of her very identity and rarely grants interviews or appears in public. We do know that she was born in Naples, the setting of this series. It is another intriguing question. Does the memoir-like tone of the book implies a biographical connection?  Would that connection be to Elena, the namesake, or Lila or perhaps both because sometimes they seem like two sides of the same person?

The unresolved questions perhaps become the most intriguing aspect of this book.  This is the first in a quartet of books, and at the end of this one is a clear feeling that the story is incomplete. Perhaps the remaining three books in the series answer the questions. Perhaps not. I don't know that I am vested enough in the story to read the rest of the series to find out. I enjoy the story, but something seems lacking, and it does not elicit a gripping emotional connection to keep me reading. A cliff notes version to find out what happens, yes. Three more books to drift through the story, perhaps not.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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