My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions, 2012.  331 pages; $17.00 (paperback); reading level: adult.

In granular detail, the narrator, Elena, chronicles her friendship with the magnetic Lila, from their meeting in first grade through their late teen years. The girls, born near the end of World War II, grow up in a dangerous, hardscrabble neighborhood of Naples, Italy, where fathers are justified in throwing rebellious daughters out of windows (feeling remorse later) and brothers use fists and weapons to defend their sisters’ honor (while the sisters resort to tears in an effort to hold them back). Elena never quite figures Lila out: Is their competition in school friendly or cutthroat? Is Lila loyal or treacherous? Together, the girls struggle to reconstruct the mysterious time before they were born using jagged bits of overheard conversation about an ogre named Don Achille, family feuds, fascism, and organized crime while plotting their escape from the familiar but suffocating boundaries of the neighborhood: Education will be Elena’s way out while Lila plans to market a pair of shoes she’s designed. The final sentence of the novel is none too subtle: There’s a sequel, it screams. Read on! But the supporting cast of characters was large and confusing (I could never keep Alfonso and Antonio in their proper places) and I wasn’t quite engaged enough with the girls to want to rush right out and buy it. However, if the breathless reception of the sequels (three, which I’ve not yet read) is any indication my guess is that soldiering on to the end of the quartet might well be worth it. My Brilliant Friend comes dangerously close two opposing literary pits: It could have read like a lazy memoir-in-fictional-guise; or it could have descended into melodrama. Ferrante avoids both. The writing seems simple, deliberately stilted even, but a restrained intensity enervates the words. Something weighty could be bubbling up through this meticulous recounting of emotions and incidents. This first volume didn’t quite work for me but the next three might well temper my opinion.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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