Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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My Brilliant Friend cover (c)Amazon

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Review by Cindi Y. 

Growing up, majority of us seemed to have the perception that we were invincible, and that nothing, nothing in our life or in our community, could have any sort of impact on how we would eventually turn out. As we grow older and become adults, however, we begin to see aspects of our lives that seem to be intertwined with parts of the past. Whether we want to recall or to let go of the past, we can’t deny the grasp and influence that it has over us. All the changes we experienced, especially the changes in friendships and relationships, as we were growing up created the person we are today.

In Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the storyline is driven by this concept of change and development, categorizing this novel as a bildungsroman, or a work that focuses on one’s formation and development. The novel, narrated and told from a bird’s-eye, first-person point-of-view, follows the development of a young individual, Elena Greco, as she experiences changes contributed by both her developing community and by her close friend, Lila Cerullo. The narrator, Elena, recounts not only her own perspective with growing up in the underdeveloped, war-affected neighborhood of Naples, Italy, but also details the major events from her friend’s life that had an impact on her own life. Throughout the novel, Elena and Lila both find themselves depending on one another in order to make sense of their changing environment. The emphasis and heavy-documentation of all the changes in the girls’ childhoods, particularly the change in friendship dynamics, is what makes this novel so remarkable and a definite page-turner.

For example, the competition between Elena and Lila is an aspect of the changing friendship dynamics that effectively gathers the audience’s attention. Elena frequently highlights the competitiveness between her and Lila and addresses the ways in which the competitiveness has influenced her life choices. Competition is first mentioned in the context of education, as Elena saw how her “brilliant” friend was able to somewhat take over her position of being the smartest in class. This situation, in which Lila is continuously proven to be far more intelligent than Elena pushes Elena to focus more on her studies in an attempt to keep up with Lila. The competition then shifts into social and economic contexts as Lila suddenly moves up in status and wealth by becoming “the fiancee of the most respectable wealthy young man in the neighborhood.” Elena, unable to do the same, is dismayed and officially designates education as her key to social mobility.

The careful detailing of this competitive friendship throughout the novel encourages many readers to constantly reflect back on their own childhoods and to draw out recollections of their own past that might relate to what Elena feels in regards to the competition. In the cases where Lila seems to have the upperhand in the friendship, many readers can’t help but to sympathize with Elena. However, this sentiment tends to change as Lila herself faces difficult obstacles. When Lila witnesses the “dissolving margins” event in which her beloved and “generous” brother transforms into someone completely different or when the project she worked so diligently on ends up in the hands of her enemy, readers find themselves sympathizing with her as well. This constant alternation between relating to Elena and then switching to relating to Lila is what allows readers to become engaged with the novel.

What makes the changes in the novel so prominent and noticeable is the underlying influence imposed by the author. Elena Ferrante, who is an unidentified Italian author, is thought to have written My Brilliant Friend about herself through a third-person perspective. If this implication is true, then her anonymity wields great power; because there is no information about the author or the history of the author, Ferrante is able to manipulate Elena’s narrative in any way she wants. Ferrante can easily change certain details about the nature of friendship, for example, so that readers take notice of and form opinions about the change. This influence is prevalent throughout the book as readers tend to favor one character at one moment and the other at another moment. With the hidden influence of Ferrante, readers can easily note the changes that the characters go through.

Overall, the emphasis on the changes experienced by the two young girls as they grow up is really what makes this novel such an exceptional publication. Because all the details about these changes are so relatable, there is a lot of much room in the story for readers to take part in. Contrary to what many reviewers say, My Brilliant Friend isn’t a novel only for the “book-club” audience. Due to its focus and centralization on the changes of the past and how they affect development, My Brilliant Friend is a book that anyone who wishes to reflect on the past can pick up and enjoy.

Rating/Recommendation

4 out of 5. This is one of the first contemporary novels I have ever read and I was incredibly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it. A lot of the themes that are developed in the novel are relatable, which made the reading of this novel more fluid and personal. Although the novel is simply focused on the development of one specific character, there are so many other factors and characters involved that really enlarges the dynamics of the plot. I would definitely reread this novel and go on to read the other novels of the trilogy. The novel ended on a note that I was not particularly satisfied with; knowing the style in which Ferrante writes in and knowing that I really enjoyed this first novel, I truly think that going on to reading the rest of the trilogy will be a good idea.

(c)CindiYu

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