‘My Brilliant Friend’ is the first in the series of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, it tells the story of two young girls, Elena Greco and Raffaela “Lila” Cerullo, spanning their friendship over the years. The series opens with Elena, aged in her sixties, taking a telephone call from Lila’s son Rino who informs her that Lila has gone missing. Having received this news, Elena looks back on her childhood and adolescence growing up with her lifelong friend outside Naples during the late 1950s and 1960s.
Described by the New Yorker as “one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary authors”, Ferrante’s identity and real name still remain a mystery over twenty years after her first novel ‘Troubling Love’ was published. She only occasionally communicates with journalists through letters stating that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Ferrante isn’t the first author to write under a pseudonym or in secrecy and nor will she be the last. However, it is the intensely personal and autobiographical nature of her writing which has fuelled speculation and interest about who she really is.
I read ‘The Days of Abandonment’ – Ferrante’s second novel and the first to be translated into English – quite recently. It is a slim but powerful novel about marriage and although I enjoyed it, I found ‘My Brilliant Friend’ to be similarly intense but much more gripping and ambitious. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’ cycle, and the film ‘Boyhood’ directed by Richard Linklater, the book focuses on the small, everyday events of Elena and Lila’s lives to tell a much more expansive story about their friendship and rivalry.
After meeting at the age of eight, the first volume ends when they are sixteen culminating in Lila’s wedding. Both girls are bright but Elena has to work hard to excel in her studies while everything seems to come effortlessly to Lila who is the more dominant character of the pair. When I started reading the book, I originally assumed that the phrase “my brilliant friend” would have been used by Elena to describe Lila, although it turns out towards the end of the book that it’s the other way around. Ferrante’s account of the female experience is excellent and I don’t think I have read a book which captures that awkward period of late childhood and early adolescence so honestly and intimately since reading ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood a few years ago.
I look forward to reading the sequels ‘The Story of a New Name’ and ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’. The fourth and final novel in the series ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ will be published this autumn. If ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is anything to go by, then Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are an exceptional achievement. I, for one, am officially hooked.