14 September 2015
There was never any question that I, the only girl in my family, would go to school – primary school, secondary school and university – along with my brothers. Looking back, I am aware of my good fortune. As I grew older and more worldly-wise, I realised that for many millions of girls in the world, going to school was not a given.
For Lenu and Lila, the two main characters in Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012), going beyond elementary school is an almost impossible feat. This has nothing to do with their abilities – they are both precocious readers and their work is praised by their teachers, who tell their parents they should write the middle school entrance exam and attend extra classes to prepare. Lila’s parents say no but Lenu’s parents, after some hesitation, agree. Lenu goes on to middle school and excels.
Lenu is the narrator in Ferrante’s story and she knows how brilliant her friend is. Lila borrows books from the school library using cards issued to all the members of her family, who are unknowingly awarded prizes for being the most prolific library users. Lila studies Latin and drills Lenu in translation exercises. But it is Lenu who goes on to gain a middle school diploma and enter a classical high school. She becomes the brilliant one who will escape, while Lila works in her father’s shoe shop and at 16 marries the grocer Stephano and so will remain trapped in her world.
Their world is the poverty-stricken outskirts of Naples after World War II, terrorised by the Camorra, who are represented in the book by the Solara family with their menacing sons Marcello and Michele. There is shocking violence, wife beating and child abuse. Ferrante’s stark style portrays this bleakness and there is an obvious absence of humour. There is, however, some relief for Lenu in a whole day spent with her father, a holiday on the island of Ischia (though that brings its own troubles when the Sarratore family arrives), borrowing books from the library and the prospect of getting an article published in a local journal.
One of the strengths of this novel is its portrayal of the complex relationship between the two girls and how this is affected in various ways by the other characters. Although they are both bright, they are not immune to the rivalries and petty jealousies of female friendships, and these are complicated by the growing awareness of the boys around them. In many ways this is a study of envy, for example, Lenu feels “a mixture of pride and suffering” when she is helping Lila get ready for her wedding.
The disappearance of Lila as reported by her son Rino in the prologue is not resolved by the end of the book. This is because it is the first in a series and is followed by The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015).
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and no-one knows who the author is. She told her publisher that she wouldn’t do anything to promote her books – it was enough that she had written them. This has provoked much curiosity and speculation. Predictably the most often asked question is “Is Elena Ferrante really a man?” Her books are translated from Italian into English by Anne Goldstein, who is an editor at the New Yorker.