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.