Translated by Ann Goldstein
Review by Lizzie Siddal
Every recent piece about Elena Ferrante seems to begin with the question, who is she? I’m not about to do that. The fact that the author, whoever (s)he is, wants to avoid the cult of celebrity and direct attention to the novels is absolutely fine by me. It’s almost unheard of that I read 3 books by one author in six months, but that’s the truth of 2014. The hashtag is entirely apt. I have caught #ferrantefever.
It would appear one fix is all it takes and My Brilliant Friend was that fix. The story of the childhood and adolescence of Elena Greco (Lenu) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), two clever girls, stuck in a poverty-stricken area of Naples during the 1950s, is rivetting. These girls are of my generation and their experience is in some ways similar, though, in most, so far removed from my own. Reading brought back fond memories from the classroom, teachers who coached and encouraged to greater things, competitions (against those dratted boys) as to who was the cleverest. The story is narrated by Lenu, the fortunate one with parents willing to make the monetary sacrifices to keep her in education. The opportunities of her brilliant friend, Lila, severely restricted by her parents refusal to do the same. Education will help Lenu escape the claustrophobic small-minded mentality of her neighbourhood. Lila, however, has to rely on her own resourcefulness and sex appeal. Seeing little return for the help she gives to her father’s shoe-making business, she decides to marry the wealthy grocer, Stefano Caracci When local money lenders and bully boys, the Solara brothers, for whom she has nothing but contempt, turn up at her wedding, and are not turned away by her bridegroom, a very mucky dye is cast.
Lila remained standing most of the time, it hurt to sit down. No one, not even her mother, who was silent during the entire visit, seemed to notice her swollen, black right eye, the cut on her lower lip, the bruises on her arms.
Domestic abuse was accepted in Naples in those days, so we should not be surprised, Besides Lila inflicts horrendous psychological abuse on her spouse. You begin to wonder, if either of them will get out alive. Lila, always contemptuous, now becomes scornful and, in my opinion, toxic. It’s a relief, when Lenu leaves to study in Pisa. It gives her space to become her own woman, to stop being in the thrall of her “friend”. Inverted commas employed because of the hurtful way Lila behaves, particularly during a summer holiday with Lenu’s unrequited love.
I’ve spent so such much time on the first two novels in the quartet because I believe that context is essential to the enjoyment of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Lenu, now moving in enlightened, inintellectual circles, though always with one eye on Lila, manages to make her own dissatisfying marriage. She finds her professor husband more conventional than expected. Even though she has penned a successful novel, as a married woman she is expected to stay at home, look after her two young daughters and entertain her houseguests. It is not enough, and, in a story arc that mirrors book two, you realise that Lenu sees an opportunity to score points off Lila.
This friendship is a complex one as are the personalities and the lives of the two women. Although separated for long stretches, they remain in contact. Admittedly rather infrequent and fractious contact at times but Lila has such jagged edges that anything else would be unrealistic. And Lenu in this third novel makes some deeply unintelligent (and disappointing) decisions. It’s the dynamic between the two women, and the drama that always surrounds Lila that kept me reading through what sometimes felt like interminable pages of politics and feminist theory.
That said, Ferrante is building up not only a portrait of a friendship but of a society and an era. Nothing is superfluous, even if some of it drags. But then so does real life sometimes. At the same time there is a building sense of suspense. The quartet, written retrospectively by Lenu, began with Lila’s still unsolved disappearance. This third installment begins with the discovery of a corpse. The clues to Lila’s disappearance may lie in her political activism. While Lenu is theorising, Lila is actually acting on her ideology. With social and political turmoil escalating into assassination and other acts of terrorism, this Italian world is becoming a dangerous place to inhabit. More threatening still, the Neapolitan neighbourhood in the form of the Solara brothers has re-established – albeit in very different ways – a menacing hold over both Lila and Lenu. The scene is set for what I suspect will be a violent and shocking climax. I can’t wait.
Lizzy Siddal blogs at Lizzy’s Literary Life.
Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, UK, 2012) 978-1-609-45078-6, paperback original, 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name (Europa Editions, UK, 2013) 978-1-609-45134-9, paperback original, 480 pages.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Europa Editions, UK, Sept 2014) 978-1-609-45233-9, paperback original 400 pages.