“Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
If quotes could summarize novels, I would certainly choose this one to describe Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed series. Set in an ever-changing yet spectacular Naples, the story revolves around the lives of two childhood friends, Elena Greco – also known as Lenù – and Raffaella Cerullo, nicknamed Lila. Their background is not at all idyllic and the two grow up in the infamous suburbs ruled by camorra.
The first installment of the tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend, deals with the two protagonists’ childhood, portraying their wits and vivid intelligence in such a way that the reader can’t help but adore them. Yet their friendship is somewhat of an atypical one. The two young girls are clearly jealous of each other and this shines through every page of the novel. Elena is the good, lovely and diligent girl while Lila is a sort of cruel misfit who is not afraid of fighting with boys and of kicking down her teacher. And yet Elena feels threatened by Lila. Although Lenù loves her best friend wholeheartedly, she can’t help but live fearing that one day, the world will discover how truly exceptional and intelligent Lila is, to the point of desiring her friend’s death. On the other hand, Lila harbors a mercurial personality and, when her parents decide not to let her continue with her education, she decides to direct all her efforts towards Elena.
Lila will never admit that in the novel, nor will she ever say that she’s tremendously jealous of her brilliant friend who, thanks to scholarships and grants, got the chance to go to school. In fact, the two girls perceive education as a ladder; in their opinion, getting an high-school diploma or a degree could fling open the doors of a new world, far away from Naples and their infamous neighborhood.
In the end, the readers will start asking themselves who actually is the brilliant friend in the novel. Is it Lila? Or is it Lenù, the one who is nicknamed so? Is it Lila, who has written a short story at just eight, or is it Elena, who has always been the best at school? The question will never be answered because the two friends are both brilliant but in different ways. Moreover, the reader will never know the actual truth.
The whole tetralogy is told by Elena and, as 20th century literature taught us, no first-hand account is ever objective. We penetrate inside the narrator’s head, we experience her fears, her joys, her sorrows and, last but not least, her ambition. Lenù is torn apart between her desire to flee and emancipate herself from ancestral Naples and the eagerness to conform with the idea of woman Italian society used to have in the fifties. The first installment lays the foundations of a future development of Elena’s self-consciousness as a woman and a feminist. But, again, is she telling the truth? Does she write her memoir because she loves Lila or because she secretly hates her and wants to take revenge? Let’s keep in mind that the story is filtrated by Elena’s words and experiences. As Ferrante herself told Vanity Fair, Lenù is a complex character, obscure to herself.
On the other hand, the open book of the novel is Lila. Elena tries to portray her friend as a complex, mysterious and enigmatic young woman but, in the end, she’s more understandable than her best friend. Bonny Lila who marries at sixteen seems to be more familiar to us than the narrator herself.
One of the great merits of My Brilliant Friend is to offer a vivid depiction of female friendship without the usual stereotypes and trivialities. Ferrante’s characters come to life in an unparalleled way, making the reader feel both the harshness of life in Naples and the ray of hope projected by the two blooming young girls.
Elena Ferrante is the acclaimed author of the series My Brilliant Friend, which features four installments: My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) and The Story of the Lost Child (2015). Other books by her are Troubling Love (2006) and The Days Of Abandonment (2005) which have been turned into movies by directors Mario Martone and Roberto Faenza. She has decided to keep her identity secret despite her literary success. In a recent interview, she stated that “books, once they are written, have no need of their author.”