Una Buona Amicizia
My Brilliant Friend
By Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 2012
Reviewed by Seana Graham
For several years I participated in a review blog called The Europa Challenge, started by enthusiasts of the works from Europa Editions, a press which has the central aim of presenting translations of European fiction to an English speaking audience. These publishers shot to fame with Muriel Barbery’s bestselling The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and subsequently many people became interested in these books with their distinctive design. Apparently, a lot of people were like me in that they hoped to review a lot more books for the Europa Challenge blog than they actually got around to doing, and so at the end of last year, Marie Cloutier, the blog’s owner, decided to close it due to a decline in participation. However, all the reviews posted there are still available to read.
But Europa Editions itself is very much alive and well, in part due to Elena Ferrante’s smash hit series the The Neapolitan Quartet. I finally got around to reading the first book in the series because it was my book group’s selection last month.
My Brilliant Friend begins in the present day. Elena learns from her old friend Lila’s son that his mother has disappeared. More specifically, she has willed her own disappearance. Lila has become determined to erase all traces of her existence, and Elena’s reaction to this is to immediately begin writing Lila’s life story. So she starts at the very beginning, with their childhood friendship in a small, very poor community near Naples, Italy. This volume takes us through their adolescence.
I have never been particularly drawn to the idea of Italy as the land of la dolce vita. But I have a real affinity for the literary tradition that Ferrante writes in, which is more somber, and tells the story of Italy, warts and all. This novel, which begins in the post World War II years, is very aware of how Italian society was shaped by that war, though everyone wants to forget what happened just a few short years before, including their own part in it.
Elena and Lila are very different personalities, but as Ferrante said in a rare interview with a Guardian correspondent, they can in no way be constructed as simple opposites. Both girls are ambitious, Lila perhaps even more than Elena, though as this is all told from Elena’s viewpoint, we can’t really know. The difference in their trajectories is not so much a difference in their aims as a difference in the ways their families empower them to move forward—or don’t. Lila perhaps has the greater will, but she also has the greater obstacles to overcome.
Our book group was, not unusually, somewhat divided on this one. One member thought that it lacked compassion, while another member, who enjoyed it, expressed the same thing by saying that it read like an ethnography of this microcosm of Italian society. And there were a few problems with the book that some members attributed to the translation.
My Brilliant Friend reminded me of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I read not too long ago. Although a very different story, it resembles Joyce’s work in that it is seen from the perspective of one who has risen out of an impoverished and in some ways blinkered level of society who is now looking back on it.
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for a famously reclusive author, and there have been many speculations as to her identity, including whether Ferrante is even a woman. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the hypothesis that a man wrote these books. In the end, though, is doesn’t really matter. Any man so attuned to the lives of young girls and their struggles as this author is would certainly have earned the right to wear that honorary mantle.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.