As much as we might want to be able to pay attention to and read All The Books, it is pretty much impossible and some titles just fall by the wayside. I feel like this is what happened to me with Elena Ferrante. Not until the final book in her Neapolitan novels came out did I actually pay attention. And then all I paid attention to was that people loved them and they were really good and no one knows who Elena Ferrante is. In this day and age that Ferrante remains anonymous after such great success is nothing short of miraculous. But what about the books? Ok, I’ll bite.
My turn for My Brilliant Friend finally came up at the library. Because I have not been paying attention, I had no idea what the book ,or even the whole series, is about. It is a relaitvely uncommon occurrence these days that I don’t at least know a little bit about a book before I start reading it and I must admit, it was kind of exciting leaping into the proverbial dark.
My Brilliant Friend is set in a working class neighborhood of postwar Naples, Italy. It is the kind of neighbordhood where everyone knows everybody and knows their business too, in which violence is not uncommon, in which owning a car means you are rich. It is the 1950s and the teenagers know some of the adults did not conduct themselves with honor during the war, committed crimes and made money in dubious ways. Boys are expected to work in the family business and girls are to work there too until they find a husband and preferably one that can help the family along in some way both monetarily and socially.
It is in this world that the teenage Elena and Lila become friends. Both girls are smart and do extremely well in school. For the beautiful Lila it seems to come easy. Her sly smile and willingness to devastate all comers with such nonchalant ease in academic competitions does not win her any friends. Nonetheless, the boys at least, can’t help but all fall in love with her.
Elena is not especially pretty but she is as smart as Lila only she has to work hard for it. She is highly competitive and her desire to get as much praise from the teachers as Lila does drives her. Lila is her reason for doing well in school, her reason for wanting a boyfriend, her reason for taking any kind of risk to which she would otherwise be averse.
At this time, working class girls didn’t generally go to high school. A test was requuired and money and since they were only going to get married and have babies anyway, there was no point in wasting that money on further educating them. But the teachers have a talk with the parents of Lila and Elena, impressing on them that their academic talent could take them far. Lila’s parents refuse, demading she go to work in the family shoemaking business. Elena’s parents decide to give her a a chance. She has a year to prove herself and if she does well she can keep going, if not, she has to get a job.
Two brilliant girls, one is allowed an education and the other is forced to follow the traditional female path. We see Lila struggle to not be like other girls, to make the most of it, to use her brains to as much advantage as she can in her severely limited sphere. We watch as Elena blossoms into a topnotch student basking in the praises of her teachers and the envy of all the other students. But in spite of her academic success she struggles with jealousy as she sees Lila being courted by the boys of the wealthier families in the neighborhood. From Elena’s perspective it appears that no matter what Lila does, she is the best at it and gets what she wants.
The reader, however, knows Lila’s life is not easy, that she sacrifices a lot for what appears to be success to Elena. We also know that no matter how smart and beautiful she is, as a woman she has no power, something that is made quite clear at her wedding near the end of the book.
The story is told from Elena’s point of view which limits and colors what we know and see of everyone. Elena is not an unreliable narrator, but by the end of the novel she is only sixteen and while smart, there is much she does not know or understand. But the book begins with Elena and Lila aged sixty-six. Elena gets a phone call from Lila’s son to tell her that Lila is missing. Instead of inspiring worry, this makes Elena angry and spurs her on to write the story that follows. But the book’s conclusion does not bring us back to the start of the novel, we are left to wonder what happened to Lila and how did she go from such a brilliant beginning to disappearing. I look forward to finding out but it will be at least a month or two before my turn for the second book comes around at the library. Ah, the delights of anticipation.