I loved this novel. Probably because the main storyline was rather corny and simple. The big takeaway from the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series is that each generation of children has the ability to improve on their parent’s mistakes and pitfalls.
Growing up in an impoverished area of Naples, Italy, Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena Greco are constantly surrounded by ill-tempered violence. Their fathers beat their mothers, their brothers beat their friends, and the women even beat the other women. The children learn these violent behaviors from their elders, and thus pass it along to their children.
This pattern of violence is stopped when Lila gets engaged and decides to prevent her fiancée from defending her honor when an ex-boyfriend tries to ruin her virginal reputation. Lila explains to Elena that Lila and her fiancé, Stefano, had decided “by mutual consent to rise a step above the Solaras, above the logic of the neighborhood.” (272).
I have read numerous translations throughout the years, but this one felt so unique to me because while it grappled with big picture, obscure feelings, these feelings were able to come across even through different cultural boundaries and languages.
If I understand the series correctly, the next three books will take us through older life phases of Lila and Elena. My Brilliant Friend begins with the two girls meeting (around age four) and growing up together, leaving us at the age of sixteen, at Lila’s wedding. I cannot wait to start on the second novel.
Perhaps my favorite part was towards the end of the novel when you realize who the title is referring to. I concluded, since the novel was told from Elena’s point of view, that My Brilliant Friend was Lila, who was always supposed to be the smartest child in their class and even their entire school. As they grow up, however, Lila loses her interest in school and eventually drops out, while Elena continues on and becomes the smartest child in her class. When Lila then calls Elena her “brilliant friend” it was a very pivotal moment for the reader as well as for Elena.
As a young girl, self-identity is a hard concept to grasp, and normally in these years self-identity is lost in the quest for knowledge, popularity, whatever. Elena’s lack of self-identity is obvious when Lila calls her “her brilliant friend”, which is what Elena always thought of Lila as. Elena constantly thought herself intellectually inferior to Lila, and to have Lila call her brilliant was an important moment in Elena’s life.
This problem with self-identity is also evident in perhaps the most difficult passages to understand in the novel, related to Lila’s experiences with “dissolving margins.” Elena explains twice to the reader how Lila experiences this issue with borders. These passages are particularly difficult to understand, but I have a feeling this issue of Lila’s will play a bigger role in later books.