11. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

TITLE: My Brilliant Friend
AUTHOR: Elena Ferrante
PUBLISHED: Europa Editions 2012
PAGES: 311 pages
READING TIME: 3.5 days

elenaferranteLike a Shakespearean play, My Brilliant Friend–book one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels–includes a list with the names of all the characters in the story at the front of the book, organized by family, and their role within a poor neighborhood outside Naples in 1950s postwar Italy.

Relationships, family pride, and history (both real and fabricated) are all integral to this intriguing bildungsroman, so it’s important to keep names and families and vocations straight throughout the novel. But these are only a background to a more central story–the childhood and adolescence of Lila Cerullo and our narrator Elena Greco, two friends who are dependent on inclusion in each other’s worlds.

As years pass in the novel, the worlds Lila and Elena inhabit seem to separate and distinguish themselves at a quicker and quicker pace. For Elena, there’s a desperate fear of leaving Lila behind that’s also coupled with a desire to always be better than her most brilliant friend.

When they were girls, they shared the world of grade school. Elena was fascinated by Lila, a wild little girl who couldn’t be tamed, who pelted people with rocks, and said horrid things. And she was always just ahead of Elena in all of their classes. It all seemed to come so easily to Lila–she was naturally curious and had a thirst for knowledge–but Elena describes how hard she had to work just to keep up with her.

Lila’s parents don’t allow her to move up in school, so Elena moves forward in that world alone. But Elena has formed such an intense attachment to Lila that not only does she feel she has to be part of the world Lila inhabits without her, but she also feels that she is still only second best in school, still competing with Lila. Elena can’t seem to shake the feeling that Lila deserves to have her place at school.

For a while, Lila continues to learn alongside Elena, using her siblings’ library accounts to exceed the limit of books one person could take out at once. She outpaces Elena in everything, and even has time to explore topics that Elena isn’t learning in school. It seems that Lila is learning for learning’s sake, but there are a few instances where Lila only takes up a language or topic because Elena has bragged about how hard it is to learn. Education remained their language, and it was, Elena thought, all that made her interesting to Lila.

Because Elena’s our narrator, we can only see Lila through her eyes. In a similar vein, we can only see Elena through the withering self-doubt and anxiety she filters herself through. Throughout much of the book, I don’t like young or adolescent Elena, because I’m comparing her to Lila the way she does. But I see Lila through Elena’s envy.

In The New Yorker writer Molly Fischer’s review, she focuses on the rawness of their childhood friendship, how, unlike an adult friendship, theirs isn’t based on the intimacy or language of romantic relationships. “Lila and Elena don’t need to pursue each other, and they can never really break with each other,” she says. “The nature of their relationship changes, but its existence remains fixed.”

We can see their friendship go through these changes over the course of the childhood story Elena tells us, and at the very beginning of the novel we learn that the nature of their friendship hasn’t changed much in adulthood. A middle-aged Elena Greco tells us that her friend has vanished without a trace, something Elena knew Lila wanted. “She wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found,” Elena says.

Elena also hints at how fierce their friendship has always been, how Lila seems to have taken something from her. There’s also a sense that as much as Elena has tried to rid her life of Lila, she still remains:

I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff, especially anything that had to do with her, and she knows it. I discovered that I have nothing of hers, not a picture, not a note, not a little gift. I was surprised myself. Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or, worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.

Who “my brilliant friend” refers to becomes a little ambiguous. Because the story is told by Elena, it seems that Lila is the genius. But there’s a moment in the book where they’re both talking about Elena’s schooling, and Lila urges her to keep moving forward because she’s always considered Elena to be her brilliant friend.

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