My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; Hillary Huber, narrator; translated by Ann Goldstein
If you are a reader who becomes attached to the characters of the books you read, this is a winner for you because it is part one in a series of four books about the evolution of a friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, from the time they are in 2nd grade and continues, throughout their lives. This first book in the series begins when one of the friends, Lila, now in her 60’s, has apparently gone missing. Her no-account son, Rino, has reached out to Elena to find out if she knew where Lila might be, but she claims no knowledge of her whereabouts. The story then works backwards in time to the beginning of the girl’s friendship and takes the reader through approximately one decade of their lives as they mature from little seven year olds in the 1950’s, living in the outskirts of Naples in post-war Italy, to blossoming young women.
The friends were naïve and unworldly as many young people of that time were. Unchaperoned fraternizing of males and females was limited. Boys and girls learned about life and sex by accident or experiment. The community had its share of secrets, petty squabbles, madness, and violent outbursts. Their families were working class, largely uneducated and poor. The girls plotted, planned and dreamt of a different, better life, of escaping the demands and confines of their family and community by marrying the man of their dreams or by writing a novel and having a career which would bring them fame and fortune. They were loyal to their families but wanted very much to separate from them. Their experiences were explored as they went to school, discovered boys, fell in and out of love, teased and tormented the opposite sex with their developing feminine wiles, studied and educated themselves in whatever way they could, and competed with each other, sometimes reacting with petty jealousy, with each thinking the other had the upper hand.
Lila considered Elena her brilliant friend, but it was Lila who actually learned more easily and quickly, almost without effort. Their rivalry felt more one-sided on Elena’s part, but that could be because she narrated the story, so we are getting her point of view. Both girls seemed to be capable of cruelty and seemed awfully mean at times, perhaps a symptom of their youth, deprivation and lack of exposure to the world. Their parents set a poor example for them as they held grudges and harbored resentments for years, waiting to extract some kind of vengeance, and they rarely forgave perceived sins. Creature comforts like cars and televisions were only owned by the more successful and rich members of the community. Often, the history of how they got their money pointed to collaboration during the war or black marketeering and led to arguments and distrust and to questions about their character. These were mostly poor, hard-working people, grocers, shoemakers, bakers, and carpenters, living in a country recovering from a war they lost. They were quick to rush to judgment and mete out their own system of justice and punishments to settle their disagreements, and the girls witnessed their methods which were often violent, impulsive and unlawful.
Elena’s family was able and willing to let her try her hand at an education, but Lila’s parents could not or would not provide the money necessary for her to have the tutoring she needed in order to take and pass the exams for entrance into Middle School. Often, as time passed, Lila used Elena’s formal education as a stepping stone for her own. As they matured, they competed with each other and helped each other, but they were not always kind to each other, and they occasionally resented the other’s achievements. Elena always felt like second best. Lila was like a cat, always ready to spring. She was prettier, smarter and more sought after by boys. She could learn on her own, didn’t have to do anything to attract the opposite sex, was brave and daring, stood up for what she believed in, sometimes instigated fights, and always plotted to get her way. She was fearless while Elena was tentative, more obedient, not as pretty or svelte and appealing. She was plump, needed to study harder and was not yet attractive to the opposite sex. Lila believed Elena was really smart and should always continue with her education. She relied on her for advice, at times, and as an accomplice in her plans. They seemed to use each other.
The book was interesting with a diverse mix of families and a well developed group of characters set in a clearly drawn post war community. Women had limited opportunity and the experiences of life that the girls were exposed to growing up were carefully examined. They learned about the relationships between men and women, about marriage and work possibilities as they experienced the day to day life in their community, observing both kindness and cruelty. There was also brutality in the neighborhood which housed letches and bullies along with the more ordinary members of a community.
The maturation of the girls as they experienced puberty, went from being playmates to competitors, alternated between respecting and resenting each other, morphed into girlfriends who had boyfriends, was replete with the jealousy and manipulation that growing up encompassed. It drew me in but then left me prematurely at the wedding of Lila to Stephano, the catch of the town, at the tender age of not quite 17. I had little hint of what the future would bring for Elena, Lila and the several families that were introduced. I had hoped that although this was part of a series, the book would feel more like a stand alone; but it felt incomplete. Although I enjoyed it, I would not have read it had I realized it was attempting to marry me to the next three books.