Last summer it was the fashionable book (rather, books, as there are four of them) to read and every VIP (beginning with the President of the Republic, who is highly popular so his advice taken into consideration) said they were fantastic; every newspaper column about books recommended it. In addition, the author was a mysterious lady hiding behind a pseudonym and no one knew exactly who she was, apart from being Italian. By now you have probably guessed that I’m talking about Elena Ferrante and her famous Neapolitan novels, of which the first book is “My brilliant friend”.
I bought it after the summer, almost a year ago and put in on my shelf of “books to read”. I suppose I had more appealing reads beckoning at the time, and it was only some two weeks ago when, after the holidays and having finished yet another book about the Tudor period, I picked it up and began to read.
The action takes place in a poor quarter of Naples, Italy, in the late fifties and early sixties of last century. It’s about the story of two friends, Elena – the author – and Lila, who meet in the first year of school.
Where Elena is serious-minded, acting in a straightforward way in spite of all her doubts and misgivings. Lila is passionate, controversial, and unpredictable like a wild untamed beast. As they become teenagers and Elena struggles to overcome her low self esteem caused by pimples and a few extra kilos (or so she thinks) and her many insecurities, Lila emerges as a fascinating girl who has all the boys in the neighbourhood at her feet.
Elena is highly influenced by Lila, even if she doesn’t wholly understand her motives. Then they follow different paths, as Lila’s parents, namely her father who is a shoemaker, decide she will not pursue her studies beyond primary school. On the contrary, Elena is encouraged to continue, and so she does, even knowing that Lila is a brilliant student and far cleverer than she is.
The books brilliantly take us through their teenage years, their loves and their heartaches, their hopes and their regrets, and the choices they are so often compelled to make. In the background the lives of their families and friends are developing in a midst of passionate encounters, bitter jealousy and domestic violence. Theirs is a world where girls and women are often the object of agression by their husbands and even boyfriends, and they accept it as something natural; a world where the only escape from poverty is to marry for money – or at least the most obvious solution. A world where young women age prematurely, pregnancy after pregnancy and abuse after abuse, sumbmissively accepting the sad fate that becomes more unsatisfying with each new day.
The first book ends with Lila’s marriage to a well-off merchant of the neighbourhood. Even if Elena feels a bit put out by her friend’s success, she is distressed to find her friend is not destined to a blissful married life as it might be expected. And it is only in the second book (“ The story of a new name”) that we discover the reason for Lila’s unhappiness – and it comes as a bit of a shock.
After the few first pages the book is a compelling read, and I saw myself looking at the last chapter and thinking I wanted to continue reading about the two friends, so I soon passed by a bookshop and bought the second one. And I know I’ll be reading the others – like our President, I’ve fallen under their spell.
I do not think it’s important or even relevant to know exactly who Elena Ferrante is, as much as this has been the object of discussion. What matters to me is how she writes, and she does it brilliantly, describing the places and above all her characters’ feelings in such a vivid way that you feel you are seeing it all in front of your eyes. She paints such a brilliant picture you can actually “see” the characters and feel their emotions – and in what bright colours she paints them!
I’m now reading the second book and I feel this urge to go on, to know how their lives will unfold. I know the books will follow them through adulthood and into their mature years. In fact the first book begins when Lila and Elena are in their sixties and Lila’s son calls Elena looking for his mother, who has simply disappeared. Elena knows nothing of her and as she thinks about her friend she travels back into the past to the days when they were two young girls full of dreams and hopes for the future.
What their future was, or will be, I look forward to discover in the next books, and I wholeheartedly agree with our President and all the other readers who declared Elena Ferrante’s books the best they had read in a long time.