A modern masterpiece from one of Italy's most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila, who represent the story of a nation and the nature of friendship.
The story begins in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets, the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow - and as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge - Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.
With My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series, Ferrante proves herself to be one of Italy's greatest storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted pause-resister, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations - a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new listeners to her work.
"Hillary Huber's subtly shaded performance couldn't be better as she reveals the complexities that separate and connect the two women.... Huber's delivery of this well-plotted, absorbing story of friendship will leave listeners wanting more." (AudioFile)
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Sweetly Dense and Focused
Ferrante seems like the "it" writer of the moment, so I gave this a shot because so many are talking about her. Expecting greatness -- maybe a Nobel candidacy -- I came into this in a demanding mood, and it mostly delivered. In its way, it's a "small" novel, a story that's confined to a handful of characters trapped in the same small neighborhood.
That claim hardly does it justice, though. It's rich in characterization and hunger, and it's a coming-of-society story as much as it is a coming-of-age one. I'm weak on my post-War Italy history, but it's clear that the protagonist is growing into adulthood just as Italy is shaking off the legacy of World War II. There's some explicit talk of building a new society, of forgetting the trajectory of the old ways, and then there are some powerful descriptions of how difficult it is to become someone other than your parents' child.
In the same way, I find this a striking feminist novel, too. The narrator's friendship with Lila is powerful and interesting. They're "frenemies" as much as best friends, and each undercuts the other's ambitions and hopes as often as she supports them. It's a great glimpse, as a male, at the very different dynamic that I've heard my wife and others describe in some of their friendships.
So, I love all that, but there are a few downsides.
First, the narrative is quiet and slow. I found I got hungry for more events, even small ones, but much of what happens is anticipation. Again, that's clever, but I'd like to have seen it culminate in more than it does.
Second, and this may be the same point from a different angle, it doesn't really end. That is, the next book in the cycle seems less a sequel than a continuation. I'm tempted to read it -- I am interested enough in the characters to want to know what becomes of them -- but I'm also ready (for now at least) for a change of pace.
So, on balance, I like this a lot and reserve the right to love it after I get to see more of what follows.
- Joe Kraus
Candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature?