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A Mysterious Relationship: 'My Brilliant Friend'

There's something special about a bond you forge when you are still not sure who you are. Elena Ferrante's thoughtful, astute writing may have you calling to mind moments from your own childhood that you have kept buried for decades.

My Brilliant Friend

Publisher: Europa
Length: 331 pages
Author: Elena Ferrante
Price: $17.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-09

Elena Ferrante is elusive. You can't find photos of her, and the biographical info available is next-to-nothing. Her novels have attracted a good deal of attention in Italy, and there are English-language translations. I have not read the earlier novels, but according to James Wood, the most famous is The Days of Abandonment. (You can read Wood's article, "The Violently Personal Novels of Elena Ferrante," in The New Yorker, 21 January 2013.) The earlier novels are startlingly candid about a variety of issues that face Ferrante's female protagonists. For example, one narrator despises motherhood and suspects that the "stink" of being a mother has repelled her husband, who has abandoned her.

Having read Wood's article, I imagined that Ferrante would be a bit like an Italian Lorrie Moore -- gleefully unhinged. However, My Brilliant Friend is not what I had imagined. It is solemn, and it follows the conventions of a Bildungsroman.

The story concerns a young woman, Elena, who worships her close friend, Lila. We learn that Lila is extraordinarily gifted; she is Elena's "brilliant friend". Though Lila's mother cannot read, Lila teaches herself to read almost before she can walk. Lila blazes through her academic requirements as a youngster, and she plans to write a novel like Little Women, so she can become rich.

Elena, meanwhile, struggles in her friend's shadow. Though Elena has academic talent, she is nowhere near as sharp as Lila. Elena feels very little of the fire that seems to power Lila through her school work. Then something surprising happens: Elena's parents permit Elena to pursue middle school studies, while Lila's parents require Lila to give up her scholarly ambitions to become a worker.

Now, the novel pivots. Elena has an opportunity to climb up and out of her semi-impoverished post-war Italian neighborhood, and Lila must stay behind. Angry, Lila cannot provide reliable support for Elena. However, at certain moments, Lila's love for her friend inspires her to act as a free tutor. Though Lila is no longer attending classes, she designs her own program of studies and pushes Elena to excel. Through Lila's persistence, Elena becomes a young literary star.

This synopsis might make the novel sound sentimental, but it isn't. One of its great strengths is that it's relentlessly clear-eyed. Ferrante repeatedly describes the pain that Lila and Elena inflict on each other. Lila greets Elena's small triumphs with disdain. Elena sometimes becomes haughty as she considers Lila's diminishing possibilities.

At the same time, the love these two girls feel for each other is plausible and moving. I was frequently reminded of friendships from my own childhood as I read -- friendships that now seem more important to me than many of the connections I have in adulthood. There's something special about a bond you forge when you are still not sure who you are. Ferrante's thoughtful, astute writing may help you to call to mind moments from your own childhood that you have kept buried for decades.

I'm hesitant to give this novel a full rave, because the narration is so relentlessly sober, "What happened afterward I don't remember, I remember only the teacher's motionless body." (32) I occasionally wished that Elena would pay more attention to some of the absurd aspects of being alive. Perhaps she does, and perhaps this part of her tone is lost in her story's English version. (The translator, Ann Goldstein, has worked extensively on Ferrante's novels.)

Also, the writing degenerates into incoherence in a climactic scene: "At the time it was just a tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness, a state in which you cannot avert the gaze or take away the hand without recognizing your own turmoil, without, by that retreat, declaring it, hence without coming into contact with the undisturbed innocence of the one who is the cause of the turmoil, without expressing by that rejection the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay..." (313). After several readings, I think I understand what Goldstein/Ferrante is getting at. Alas, Ferrante could have found a way to excise this thicket of words.

Still, I want to recommend this book. The start and conclusion are particularly strong. In the first pages, we learn that Elena is writing down Lila's story because Lila (now an aging woman) has disappeared. No one can find her. Elena wants to create a testament to Lila's existence -- a tribute, but also a way of thwarting Lila's wish to disappear. You sense right away that this is a mysterious relationship -- one you will want to investigate.

In the final pages, Lila senses that the man she is marrying is slightly different from the man of her dreams. He commits some small acts of betrayal. In the last sentence, a startling revelation makes you fear for Lila's immediate future.

Ferrante has indicated that this book will be the first in a trilogy. I am haunted by Elena and Lila, and I will be checking in to see what happens to them as they mature.


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