It’s a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman, apparently the first of a trilogy. Its narrator, Elena Greco, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and adolescence, in the late nineteen-fifties...The city of Elena’s childhood is a poor, violent place. But deprivation gives details a snatched richness … But My Brilliant Friend is a bildungsroman in mono, not stereo; we sense early on that Lila will stay trapped in her world, and that Elena, the writer, will get out … In this beautiful and delicate tale of confluence and reversal, it is hard to identify the moments when a current changes course … A final irony is coiled in the novel’s title, the biggest reversal, a shift in perspective that has taken a whole novel to effect.
[Ferrante’s] talents are in full force in My Brilliant Friend, which follows the relationship between two women: studious, quietly determined Elena, who narrates, and the canny, enigmatic Lila, beginning with their girlhood outside Naples in the aftermath of World War II … Their stories, we understand, are irrevocably intertwined, as are their certain-to-be-divergent paths; the mystery of their fates is precisely what will drive the narrative … Ferrante wisely balances her memoir-like emotional authenticity with a wry sociological understanding of a society on the verge of dramatic change.
The charismatic and mysterious Lila is eminently crush-worthy, but it doesn’t take much hermeneutic detective work to see that Ferrante thinks her namesake protagonist is brilliant in her own right. She’s also more fortunate: Elena’s parents allow her to continue her education through high school, whereas Lila’s expect her to drop out and start working. By the end of this astute novel, which has been translated into lucid English by Ann Goldstein, these environmental differences have just begun to manifest themselves.
Rarely do we find the tension, the dissatisfaction, or the fear created by the completely natural and expected changes in friendships articulated as clearly as we find it in these novels. Ferrante captures the unnerving and beautiful elements of human relationships with vivid precision and dramatic seriousness...Elena and Lila are two children of a lively, dirty, poverty-stricken ghetto in Naples. Elena and Lila are best friends, but at times one or the other of them isn’t so sure of it. The friendship is dynamic, as much in flux as anything in their world … Strike the words ‘female’ and ‘feminist’ and see what you get: a nuanced friendship, a striking coming-of-age story, a powerful work. A novel about human beings immobilized by the numbing, normalizing tendencies of poverty.
Lina, the twisted product of this uncanny world, is Ferrante’s most terrifying creation — no small feat...Elena is both frightened and enthralled by her. Their early friendship is defined by acts of ever-escalating daring and sabotage … A scene in which Elena notices Lina’s changing body for the first time must stand among the most emotionally accurate ever written about puberty … Ferrante has long explored the effects of patriarchy on smart Italian women, but here she takes on what it does to an entire neighborhood. My Brilliant Friend has so many characters that it comes with a cast list, but most are so indelible it proves unnecessary.
Ferrante’s evocation of the working-class district of Naples where Elena and Lila first meet as two wiry eight-year-olds is cinematic in the density of its detail, its atmosphere heavy with barely suppressed brutality. Naples in the aftermath of the Second World War remains suffused with almost medieval suspicions and fears … The girls become friends at school, where Elena is studiously successful and Lila shines with a wild brilliance … It is fitting, in a story that is seamed with tiny tales of vengeance, that in writing this story Elena thwarts both Lila’s desire to disappear and her attempt to recast her friend’s as well as her own past.
The world of Elena and Lila, Neapolitan girls growing up after the Second World War, is small, casually violent, and confined to their poor neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and the few prosperous families dominate. There are rules and expectations, and everyone knows and lives by them … Lila, mercurial, unsparing, and seemingly capable of starting a full-scale neighborhood war, is a memorable character.
[Elena’s] friendship with Lila is its own world within an insular world, and like most girls' friendships, it trades in support, competition, confidences, example and that ‘continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other.’ This friendship tells her who she is and at the same time undoes what she knows of herself … [Ferrante] writes with a ferocious, intimate urgency that is a celebration of anger. Ferrante is terribly good with anger, a very specific sort of wrath harbored by women, who are so often not allowed to give voice to it.
My Brilliant Friend is a compelling and moving coming-of-age story set in an impoverished neighborhood struggling to come into its own in a rapidly shrinking world. Celebrated Italian author Ferrante’s unflinching and insightful prose is captivating and hopeful here and will have readers eagerly awaiting the next installment.