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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante

This is an excellent series, unlike anything else I’ve read. Please ignore the awful Wal-Mart covers and lame titles; Ferrante writes vibrant, high-quality literary fiction that in no way resembles its packaging.


These books tell the story of two girls (later women) who grow up together in a poor Naples neighborhood after WWII. Elena, the narrator, is gifted and hardworking, and begins to pull herself out of poverty through education. Her best friend, Lila, is ferociously talented, but her parents remove her from school at a young age. This first book follows the two through childhood and adolescence, where their paths begin to diverge. But the series is really one giant book, with no firm stopping places, so don’t be surprised when this one feels incomplete on its own.


There is something electric about Ferrante’s writing, as if she’s plugged into a slice of life and is scribbling down whatever comes out (indeed, the premise of the series is Elena, now a writer, scribbling down all she can remember of Lila after her friend’s disappearance). I’ve read a lot of books, and especially in contemporary novels it can be all too easy to see the scaffolding behind the writing, the plot contrivances and shorthand characterization and emotional cheap shots. And perhaps my favorite thing about the Neapolitan novels is that there’s none of that here. They are fresh and raw and reading them is like having a firsthand experience; the complexity of the characters’ relationships, the emotional detail, and the immediacy and realism of the writing quickly immerse the reader in the characters’ world, to the point that it’s easy to forget you’re reading a novel at all.


And they are complex, believable characters living in a three-dimensional and fascinating world, so really, what’s not to like? There’s a story about friendship here, but there’s also a great deal more – it’s a story of a time of violent social upheaval in Italy, a story of women finding themselves in a man’s world, a story about class and education and the ways growing up in poverty shape one’s identity. They are wonderfully smart books, of the sort that articulate things you’d known but never put into words, even while they pull you in to the story.


They aren’t perfect books – some of the minor characters lack distinguishing characteristics, and none of the books are satisfying as standalone novels – but these are minor flaws for a truly groundbreaking series. I wish I could read it in the original Italian, but the translations are excellent; they keep the flavor of the original language, but the writing is good in its own right.


At any rate, having just completed the third book, I’m missing this series already and can’t wait to read the fourth and final volume when it’s released in English this fall. Definitely recommended to those who enjoy literary or historical fiction, stories about women’s lives or female friendship, or simply discovering new and exciting books.