Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Brilliant Friend; Elena Ferrante

Author:  Elena Ferrante
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Europa Editions / Penguin
Edition: eGalley
Setting:  Italy
Source: Edelweiss
Date Completed: September/2012
Rating: 4/5
Recommend:  yes

The first in a proposed trilogy, by an Italian author I've enjoyed in the past, My Brilliant Friend, releases next week. The story takes place outside of Naples in a poor part of town. It's a town where people work hard just to put food on the tables of their families, tempers flare and violence is not unusual. Even good friends aren't always kind to one another.

The story begins in the present with a phone call and then flashes back to the 1950s. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are young girls who meet at the age of eight in the 1950s  and become friends. Both are from poor families and growing up has it's challenges, but Lila's family has even less than Elena's family.  This is evidenced by the jealousy Lila feels when she first sees Elena's somewhat superior doll.  The girls are playing and Lila throws her doll down a grate and then challenges Elena to do the same with her doll. When they can't find the dolls in the basement area, Lila tells Elena, the the town's most feared man, Don Achille has taken the dolls and put them in his bag. She challenges Eleana to confront him.

Lila, is clearly the leader, a bully who can stand up for herself. She's one of the most hated children in school at an early age. A girl who is brilliant, has spunk and determination and one who doesn't take no for an answer.  Elena is the good girl, also smart, however, she has to work very hard for good grades, while it comes naturally for her friend Lila.  Elena is also a follower who is constantly being challenged by her friend to do things that she is uncomfortable doing.

Sadly, in 1950's Italy even bright children do not automatically attend high school and college, oftentimes being expected to help the family out by working.  It is at this point that the girls paths take different turns, and ultimately the reader is left with lots of questions, which begs for another novel about  Lila and Elena grown up years.

(an interesting passage)

[I felt no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.]

There is an interesting section in the novel where Lila talks about having episodes of "dissolving boundaries" where on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolve and disappear. In fact this novel begins with a present day telephone call from Rico, a son of Lila to Eleana saying that his 66 year-old mother has disappeared, so there are many questions that go unanswered.

I liked this new novel, but I had a few issues with it as well.  Even though it is really Eleana and Lila's story (and they are such memorable protagonists), there are so many many characters in this novel. After a while, in my mind at least, I just figured each new person was pretty much someone related to one of the girls or a friend of someone else.  To me, all these non essential characters made the plot drag in certain parts, but don't get me wrong, this is still a story worth reading.

The translation is excellent and the author is a master of creating a wonderful sense of place. I could visualize the sights, sounds, smells of the villages, as well as the appearances of the characters. It's a story of family, of friendship and of the struggles and challenges of an impoverished life.  I suspect that the sequels to follow will nicely fill in the missing pieces of Elena and Lila's middle-aged years.

If you decide to read this one, I'd love to hear what you thought.

Other novels by this author which I enjoyed:
(the Kindle Editions are on sale at Amazon for just $4.99 each)


  1. I want to read that! There's something about the 50's combined with Italy that is very very appealing to me.

  2. plus how can one resist that cover and those three little bridesmaids!

  3. I get what you're saying about the non-essential characters. I'm glad the book is still worth reading.

  4. Wow, this sounds good. I like the timeframe as it would take me back to my own childhood. Sometimes authors feel it's necessary to add a zillion characters when in reality they serve no purpose and just clutter up the literary landscape.

  5. This book reminds me a little of The Bookie's son, though it's about 2 girls, instead of one boy. I am interested in reading this one and seeing where it goes, as they way you've described the plot does sound enticing to me. It's too bad that there are so many characters though, it also sounds as though it might be a little confusing. Very interesting and thoughtful review today. I might have to look this one up!

  6. This sounds like a good story and one I may enjoy. Reading your thoughts on it though I have to say I don't think the cover suits it. Worse yet I would not even pick this one up in the store thinking it was purely a romance novel.

  7. That does sound good and I could use a brilliant friend!

  8. This book appeals to me as I love stories about friendships, especially ones that span over years.

  9. I think this has to be my next Europa! Are you going to put this on the Challenge blog? Do you want me to do it?

  10. You made it sound complicated and intriguing. I hate when kids are mean to each other, like in Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood.

  11. I'm glad that the translation turned out well. I often wonder about reading books written in another language and whether or not I would get those small nuances. This one sounds interesting. I always love your reviews, Diane!


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