Sunday, April 5, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Smart little girls grow up and grow apart

Two tots play with their dollies in the courtyard of their apartment building, then later attend school together. Shy Elena is intimidated by proud confident Lila, though they quickly fall into a passionate friendship. Both girls are bright, but the teacher’s pressure on the uneducated parents to continue the girls’ education only works on Elena’s family. Nonetheless, Elena is always conscious of her parents’ financial sacrifice and doesn’t want to let them down. At first, Lila tries to keep up with Elena's schooling, by reading all the books in the library, learning Greek and writing eloquent letters. Later, her creativity and passion turns to the art of shoemaking, but then Lila loses interest in learning, placing all her aspirations on a marriage.

For this one, maybe my expectations were too high. The novel felt overly long, like I was being beaten over the head. Got it. Lila is brilliant. Brilliant and screwed. In the background a bunch of working class napoletani, almost indistinguishable from each other, beat each other up. Or throw children from windows. But then the book began to sneak up on me like Sebald or Middlemarch or Gina Frangello, books in which unrelated repetitive mildly boring scenes turn out to be the backdrop for a magnificent architecture.  And then, I understood. This book is about realizing some things are irrevocable. Like education. The stakes I thought were small but the stakes are actually huge.

Lila is presented by Elena as sort of a monster, icy cold and ruthless, but if you were to analyze her actual interactions with Elena, she seems to be a very nice young woman, politely deferring to her friend on many occasions. The story is equally about Elena and her escape from the ignorant neighborhood as much as it is about Lila. Elena, quite aware her wall eyed mother doesn’t like her,  but again and again, when she is about to quit school, she is encouraged by the mother. The reader needs to parse Elena’s narration.

Lila is headed, you can tell, for unhappiness and Elena is headed for something greater. But will the neighborhood hold her back? So I am eager to read the rest. I’m afraid Elena’s going to join the Red Brigades or something.

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