By Elena Ferrante
Elena, the narrator of this rich and vivid story, meets Lila for the first time when they are six years old, beginning the profound yet tumultuous friendship that will span their lives. Elena and Lila live with their families in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. We quickly learn that life in their neighbourhood is poor and gritty, filled with things to be afraid of. Elena recounts the fears that overshadowed her childhood, “Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war …. You could also die of things that seemed normal … You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it.” This confusing, frightening and vibrant world is the back-drop to the childhood that Elena and Lila try to survive, make sense of, and perhaps, escape.
In this neapolitan neighbourhood of the 1950’s, family reputations and rivalries account for everything. Deep-rooted jealousies, rumours and wives-tales often led to distorted beliefs, or worse. Elena recounts the time when as very young girls, she and Lila confront Don Achille, a man terribly feared by the local children as a sort of real-life “ogre”. Forbidden to go anywhere near him, Elena nonetheless finds herself following Lila “climbing slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time”. As the girls crept up a set of stairs toward his house, Elena tells us, “Lila did something unexpected … She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.”
‘My Brilliant Friend’ is the first book of four novels known as the Neapolitan Series. The author’s real name is not known – he or she uses the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante. In the news recently was a report that the author’s identity had been unmasked. Ferrante, who is one of Italy’s most well-known contemporary authors, is famously known for not wishing to be famous; an interesting debate ensued as to whether the author was entitled to anonymity. I believe many people, myself included, feel the choice should be left up to the author. For more on this, you may like to read Elizabeth Renzetti’s insightful column from the Globe and Mail: ‘Elena Ferrante’s true identity has no bearing on the magic of her novels’.
Some book discussion topics – We hope you’ll enjoy reading about Elena and Lila’s lives and have some great conversations with your friends. Here are some ideas:
What does the story of Don Achille represent in the novel? What does his story tell us about life in this time and place?
What is the basis of the friendship between Elena and Lila? How does rivalry factor into this?
Struggling to survive is a theme throughout the novel. Would you also say the idea of surrender is a theme? What characters and situations come to mind when thinking about struggle and surrender?
To learn more about Ferrante’s fiction, here’s a great article from the New Yorker by James Woods, ‘Women on the Verge’.
Happy Reading! Sue, Best New Book Club