Elena Ferrante is an enigma. She–we assume the writer is a she since that is how she has identified herself in the few anonymous interviews she has given–has never appeared publicly. To date, while there are rumours of who may be the person behind the name, whether it be their real name or a nom de plume, no one has ever officially identified themselves as the Italian author. All we are left with then, as a reader, is a wonderful writing style that tackles the complexity of a female friendship set in the Naples region of Italy.
Ferrante’s story revolves around two women: Elena, who most likely is a stand-in for the author herself, and Lila, her best friend. Elena serves as the narrator of the novel which focuses on first their childhood, then their adolescence. The remaining books in the series spend time on their adult lives together. In short, Lila is an obstinate, non-conforming girl while Elena seems to have an unusual fascination with her friend which borders on an inferiority complex. It’s debatable who the titular “brilliant friend” is in this book. While Elena is the clear scholastic one, Lila is shown time and again through the words of Elena herself to be a brilliant thinker who has the gift to view life in very different ways from others.
Ferrante’s original work was written in Italian and then translated. Since I do not know Italian, I am going to assume that the translation is faithful to both Ferrante’s original meaning and writing style. If we can move forward under this assumption, I thoroughly enjoy her unique writing style which is highly narrative, with only scarce use of dialogue. I also enjoyed the work because it is far from formulaic, the story being more character driven, taking the time to show us the complex friendship between the two women, and how they fit into their small, poor community in Naples in which they were raised.
My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four novels, followed up by The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, to be released in English in North America in September 2015.
I highly recommend you give this first novel in the series a read.