Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Right now, I have zero books on the go. (Hard to believe, but it's true.) Yesterday, I brought home the novel I had been reading on my breaks at work because I was so close to the end (My Brilliant Friend), I finished an audiobook (Wild Ones) and the novel I was reading at home (Euphoria). This morning, I even finished reading a cookbook that I have been dipping in and out of (The New Persian Kitchen). So, with a clean reading slate, I am determined to write about all four of these books before I start something new.

Having heard a lot about Elena Ferrante's series of Neapolitan novels, I was curious to see if they lived up to the hype. The short answer is yes. I was immediately swept up in the soap opera of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein.

With its large cast of characters and strong sense of place and time, it's sort of a cross between Jane Smiley's Some Luck and Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Almond Picker.

My Brilliant Friend spans a decade of friendship between two girls, starting in 1950 when they are about six years old. Lila is very smart and willful to the point of naughtiness--qualities that attract shy and cautious Lenu. I found the close character studies of the girls and the people around them surprisingly compelling, even though there isn't a lot that happens. The place and era--an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples with its undercurrent of violence--is vividly real.

Lenu is the first-person narrator throughout. I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's memoir Living with a Wild God when Lenu describes something that Lila experiences:

   "On December 31st of 1958 Lila had her first episode of dissolving margins. The term isn't mine, she always used it. She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared."

The final scene, which takes place at 16-year-old Lila's wedding banquet, caught me by surprise. It's not exactly a cliffhanger, but it doesn't bode well for happily ever after. Does a contented life ever make a good story? Anyway, I'm hooked. I want to know what will happen in the next book: The Story of a New Name.

Readalikes: Some Luck (Smiley); The Almond Picker (Agnello Hornby); The Girls from Corona Del Mar (Rufi Thorpe), and also maybe Arcadia (Lauren Groff).

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