At last a book that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”
My Brilliant Friend. Book One if the Neapolitan Novels: Childhood, Adolescence. By Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, 331 pp., $17, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
This novel is an antidote to Tuscan sunburn. It is a book you can turn to when you’ve read too many memoirs of fragrant olive groves, medieval bell towers, and lovably indolent workers. You need not fear that you will weep as you read about black-truffle pasta made with the freshest ingredients while you’re eating Buitoni shaken into the pot from a box.
Elena Ferrante tells a bleak story of two friends whose lives keep converging and diverging as they move from first grade to the end of high school in a mob-infested working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. The good Elena, the narrator, is blond, and the bad Lila is black-haired. That echo of stereotypes from myths and legends suggests the nature of the tale.
Ferrante’s writing is nominally in the social realist tradition. But the plot owes a debt to neo-Gothic melodrama, if not soap opera, without the usual supernatural elements. It opens with a mysterious disappearance that is never credibly explained. (Later books in the series may resolve the issue, but in context, it’s a cheat.) From then on the novel unfolds as a grim rush of incidents that befall its young heroines in a city with dead rats on the streets. In an early scene Elena and Lila climb a dark stairwell, a Gothic trope, to the apartment of a shadowy man — “the ogre of fairy tales”– who terrifies children. Over the next decade, the two will make their way in a world of murder, theft, adultery, mob shakedowns, and more. Men embittered by beatings at the hands of their creditors or enemies return home to beat their wives and children, Elena and Lila among them. The childhood friends become links in “a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs,” all leavened by little kindness and less love. If many books about Italy imply that “the Italians know how to live,” this is the rare novel that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”
My Brilliant Friend involves so much of children that the novel should be a moving — if not heartbreaking — coming-of-age tale. Overseas newspapers have said that Neapolitan women have wept on seeing their lives on its pages. But it’s hard to admire the industrious but charmless narrator, Elena, or her foil, the defiant Lila, who has a malicious streak. The novel doesn’t linger on their trials long enough to evoke the deep sympathy for their plight merits. It’s always racing off to describe the next misery. You never fully see why Elena remains in emotional thrall to her childhood playmate long after she has begun to see her friend’s faults and to move out into the world while Lila remains tethered to their neighborhood. Like a good Gothic novel, this book is a gripping horror story with characters whose actions often defy belief.
Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.
Best line: Lila tells a violent suitor that “to call him an animal was to insult animals.”
Worst line: “As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Tim Parks, one of best living writers on Italy, describes the “lazy writing” in the paragraph: “Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: ‘Harsh, fierce sounds’; ‘One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood’; insults are ‘hurled.’ The memory is ‘for me still unbearable’ though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten.”
About the author: Elena Ferrante is a pen name for one or more authors who may or may not be female and may or may not live in Italy.
Published: First Italian edition, 2012; first U.S. edition
© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.