Elena Ferrante Brilliantly Portrays an Italian Childhood in My Brilliant Friend
I came to My Brilliant Friend because my sister had read it, and said she wanted to talk with someone about it. I haven’t read the rest of the four-book series, nor have I watched the HBO show based on them. But my sister and I found plenty to talk about.
During the first few chapters, My Brilliant Friend succeeds in portraying the world from inside the mind of a child, which is no small feat. Most books about childhood are from an adult’s perspective, whether or not that’s the author’s intention. But Ferrante portrays wonderfully the children’s abject terror of a dark basement or a neighbor they’ve never met, even as they casually accept bullies and bloody noses as the order of the day.
Still, as the narrator, Elena, remarks, “I have no nostalgia for my childhood: it was full of violence.” Indeed, her account of growing up in early 1950s Naples, Italy often made my teeth tingle. In one scene, the father of her best friend, Lily, becomes so enraged that he throws his daughter out of the house—very literally. Elena watches as Lily soars from a window and lands in the street. This small scene is a metaphor for Lily’s life—her potential to soar, the reality of gravity and cobblestones. But as children, Elena and Lily take for granted the world they’ve been born into, unaware that they’re paying for the sins and sufferings of their parents, who haven’t come through the war morally, psychologically or economically unscathed.
My sister and I agreed that the second half of the book is not as enthralling as the first, as the girls leave childhood behind. However, we didn’t lose interest in their lives. The heart of the novel is Elena and Lily’s friendship, which is sometimes nearly indistinguishable from enmity. In their fraught relationship love and envy, admiration and scathing judgment go hand in hand. Because the story is told from Elena’s point of view, we can at first only guess at Lily’s feelings and motivations, but they become startlingly clear as the story progresses. The novel ends on a tragic note. I want to know what happens to the girls as they step into adulthood—but I’m almost afraid to find out.