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Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (4/5)

5 Mar

A good friend gave me this book for Christmas too many years ago. It’s languished on my shelf even as I heard amazing things about Ferrante and enjoyed a shorter of her novels. I finally had time to grab the audiobook and listen to the story. While I didn’t think it was as mind-blowing as some seem to, I did enjoy this book. As a side note, I have no author image here because Ferrante is anonymous.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Other books by Elena Ferrante reviewed on this blog:

The Lost Daughter (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Goodreads:

Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost sixty years, as its protagonists, the fiery and unforgettable Lila, and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflictual friendship. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as ten-year-olds through their school years and adolescence.

Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.

This felt like a period piece to me and that kept me from connecting to it. It was so clearly set in the 1950s and the experiences Elena and Lila had were so specific to that time. It lost some of its universality to me because of this. Getting married at 16 to a man in his late 20s and having to apply to go to middle school were such central tenants of this book and so in contrast to my life. The friendship Elena and Lila shared, at its core, is universal, but I felt that was lost and it kept me from a perfect 5 rating. I’ve had many friendships similar to the girls. There’s always some level of competition and comparison between two people as close as these girls. It was very real to me and the balance of power in this relationship is well set up.

Some of the characters were hard for me to connect with because of cultural difference between modern America and 1950s Italy. The relationships between the male and female friends were complicated. The way Elena felt about her parents, especially her mother, was very strange to me. While each character felt real, I struggled to keep all of the friends and neighbors straight and many of them feel flat because I couldn’t remember their small details.

Elena was my favorite character. Not just because she was the narrator, but because I felt she was most like me. I loved school and I felt awkward and ugly in my body going through puberty. I think that’s somewhat universal. I felt out-of-place around the ‘popular’ kids, the rich kids in this story. I’ll admit there were times I felt superior when I did well on assignments and other times I felt like a failure for my lack of a relationship in social situations. The back and forth Elena felt reminded me of myself in middle school and high school.

What made the relationship between the girls so good was that you could understand why Lila acted the way she did. Elena had such a fundamental understanding of her friend that she was able to break down her reactions and actions and see how she’d affected Lila. The creation of the shoes was very emotional for Lila. Though we never hear her say it, her actions and the way Elena understands them, show her passion. It’s even how the book ends! (Not a spoiler, I promise.)

I enjoyed Elena’s time Barano. She came into her own during this time, physically and mentally. Having to be her own person outside of Lila’s shadow was hard for her, but she figured it out. She found a way to be happy that didn’t involve school or Lila. I think that independence is what gave her the confidence to have Antonio as a secret boyfriend and further gave her the social confidence she didn’t have before going to Barano.

There wasn’t a part of the book I would have cut. In the end, all the little stories and bits that seemed unimportant were needed. They developed the characters and the relationships that culminated in the wedding and without them, it would have been impossible to understand all the nuances of what happened to the friends that day.

My audiobook was narrated by Hillary Huber. I’m not sure if it could have been helped, but there were times her pronunciation of the Italian words confused me. I think this should be credited to me not speaking Italian more than Huber’s reading. She had a very airy tone to her reading that made the book feel like a memory. Because of how the book starts, it’s clear that it is but 12 hours of dreams can get old fast. This makes it sound like I didn’t like Huber’s narration which I really did, promise!

Female friendships can be some of the most complicated webs between two people. My husband is frequently amazed at how I interact with my female friends. Ferrante gives them all the detail, dirt, and tears they deserve in this book. Elena and Lila, while competitive, catty, and at times rude, love each other. Their families do not understand them at the level they understand one another and their husband and future husband will never share the same love the two women do. I’m honestly jealous of Elena and Lila. I’m still waiting for my lifelong female friend.

Writer’s Takeaway: A book does not need to focus on a dramatic incident or life-changing event to be impactful and memorable. This book is a great example. It can focus on two people or one relationship. Many other books with this focus concentrate on it’s coming together or falling apart but Ferrante did an amazing job of emphasizing the drama in daily interaction and I commend her on that.

I liked this book but didn’t fully connect with it. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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