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Set in post-WWII Italy in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, My Brilliant Friend gives voice to the social, political, and cultural movements of its time. The story is told from the perspective of Elena Greco, also called Lenù, whose best friend’s disappearance as an adult compels her to write the story of them meeting in childhood and growing up together in a neighbourhood that can be astonishing in its violence. Throughout the story, we see Lenù and Lila’s friendship grow and change as they compete against each other, find love, and undergo personal transformation.
The main characters of this novel, Lenù and Lila, are like two halves of a whole. Lenù, who narrates the story, is depicted as timid, studious, and worrying. Lila, Lenù’s best friend, is bold, articulate, stubborn, and rebellious, and she is often at odds with authority figures such as parents and teachers; she wants to do things her own way or not at all.
Both girls have a natural intelligence, but, while Lenù uses hers to escape the poverty of the neighbourhood by gaining an education, Lila faces more barriers to education and instead weilds her remarkable wits like a knife; honed to be weaponized. Ferrante’s writing gets to the heart of the contrast in character of these two girls: what motivates them, separates them, and brings them together. The relationship between Lenù and Lila is not just one of camaraderie; it’s also one of competition. We follow these girls from age seven to their mid-teens, and whether it’s whose body develops first, who gets a boyfriend first, or who has the best grades, there is always a thread of envy that follows them. This competition has a positive effect on Lenù’s studying habits, where Lila’s constant urging pushes Lenù to excel academically, but it can also be a bitter poison between them, where both friends fight for male attention. Ferrante strikes an impressive balance between love and antagonism in her depiction of Lenù and Lila’s relationship.
The antagonists, the Carracci and Solara families, both of whom got wealthy through illegitimate means, are terrifying and fascinating; the threat of violence permeates their every action. Don Achille, the patriarch of the Carracci family, in particular, strikes fear into the hearts of Lenù and Lila from an early age, as the children of the neighbourhood see him as a boogeyman, a real-life monster living on their very street. Ferrante takes great care to mythologize Don Achille’s character, and this reputation follows the Carracci family even after his death.
My Brilliant Friend is a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel that centers around Lenù and Lila’s development from childhood to adolescence. The anxiety and angst of the teenage experience is a central theme in the novel: Lenù laments her changing body, her need to study versus her family’s opposition to her attending middle school, and her fear of becoming her mother, who is a housewife with little agency or education, while Lila’s rebellious nature is at odds with cultural expectations of women as docile and subservient. Getting an education is a source of rebellion from gendered expectations and is seen by Lenù as a means of escaping from poverty. The contrast between the wealthy Solara and Carracci families with the poverty of the rest of the neighbourhood adds a tone of desperation to Lenù’s obsessive study habits.
The theme of gender roles is at the fore of this novel—readers see the 1950s role of women in the Italian South and how Lenù and Lila are simultaneously at odds with this role but also pressured to fill it, to follow in their mothers’ footsteps. Education is seen as a useless endeavour and something not meant for girls, so Lenù’s insistence to attend middle and high school is an act of striking bravery.
Another notable theme is the hidden sides and complexities of people: not everyone is how he or she appears at a glance or by reputation. One part of the novel stands out in this regard: Lila is horrified by the violence and aggression her older brother, Rino, is capable of. Lila admires Rino, who often takes her side in conflicts with their father, and is devastated by his rage against the Solaras, which is seen as an act of betrayal. Ferrante is masterful at showing the emotional lives of her characters, whether they are protagonists or antagonists. Even Marcello Solara, a violent, cruel, and loathsome man, is depicted as having a rich emotional life—despite the terror he brings to the neighbourhood, he is only human.
The style in which My Brilliant Friend is written can take some getting used to for readers more familiar with an English writing style. However, if readers are patient, the story, characters, and themes unfold beautifully. We delve deep into Lenù and Lila’s minds and psyches, seeing all her contradictions, fears, loves, and aspirations. Translated from the original Italian, the English edition of this book retains the roundabout expression typical of Italian prose. While English tends to be very utilitarian and to the point, Italian has a tendency to meander, to be circular.
Ferrante’s writing is rich in finely-detailed imagery. One passage that left a considerable impression on me was one about the rage of women in the neighbourhood, where Ferrante writes that men have an outlet for their rage, which causes it to dissipate after being expressed, while women are forced to be silent and therefore their rage is endless. The metaphor of this rage as little insects infecting the women of the neighbourhood is both vivid and powerful.
With deft and detailed worldbuilding, fascinating characters, striking themes, and sensitive portrayals, My Brilliant Friend is an astounding glimpse into southern Italy’s historical past.