I have strong feelings about Naples – I lived there as a child for a few years, and I have distinct impressions of the place. I remember the old ladies pinching my cheeks and telling me I was beautiful, the cobblestone markets in town where we bought Christmas things, playing in a junkyard near our house (Naples and garbage issues are always linked), and Mount Vesuvius looming over everything. So when I’d been told about a series of books that were called “The Neapolitan Novels”, I was obviously intrigued. I’d heard of them, that people LOVED them, and that there was a swirl of mystery surrounding the true identity of the author Elena Ferrante (note: I haven’t looked to see what the answer is, because I don’t care).
Instead, I fell into the world of this book. It’s set in postwar Naples, and centers around the life of Elena and her friend Lila. Lila, it turns out, is secretly amazing at everything, despite growing up in a household that is quite poor and uneducated. She has taught herself to read and write before everyone else in the class, and this pushes young Elena to try and keep up. It’s fascinating to watch Elena at first struggle to keep up with and then surpass Lila, as Lila begins to care less about studies – or at least pretend to care less.
We get a peek in at what their lives are like – striving in school, arguing with the neighborhood children, imagining dark lives for their neighbors. We are there for the fireworks on New Years Eve (something that I can attest to from experience is a BIG F’ING DEAL), for trips to Ischia and the beach, rides in cars into the city, and a wedding. The girls’ ambitions begin to diverge, with Elena becoming a highly praised scholar, and Lila focusing on her family business and the business of marriage. There are so many things that I never thought about the setting that were just eye-opening to me: what was life like in Italy after WWII, when they had been ruled by a Fascist government, and what the repercussions would be for the children of those who lived and fought under that regime.
The story takes them from about age 8 through age 16 or so, and we know from the introduction to the book that it’s told by the adult Elena, so it’ll be terrific to see what happens next. Apparently it’s all meant to be one book, one story, but was broken up into smaller novels for reasons of practicality. The next book in the series will take these young women into the primes of their lives – the time when meaningful, permanent changes will happen. But I was pleasantly towards the end of the book to have my preconceived notions of where the title came from flipped – all along I had imagined that “My Brilliant Friend” was in reference to Lila, who was secretly intelligent and wonderful, and instead it’s something that Lila says to Elena. Elena is the smart one who will be able to use her mind and talents to push through and perhaps get out of Naples and their neighborhood.
If you haven’t read these books yet, I would highly recommend it. The relationships that we see play out on the page are complicated and terrific. The world of 1950s Naples is engrossing, and so clearly and viscerally conveyed. It’s not the kind of book that makes you want to travel to the setting, but makes it clear why these girls are so desperate for any escape or elevation in station. Fortunately it’s easy reading that will sail by because you feel so connected and invested in what happens to these girls. I’m already on the list for book 2.
Details: My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. First English edition (translated by Ann Goldstein) published 2012 by Europa Editions.