I’ve been living in 50s and 60s Naples over the past few days and my trip has left me unsettled and restless. This week I read the first two books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (it’s a four book series) called “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of a New Name”. I’ve wanted to read these books for a long time. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the series and have heard friends rave about how beautiful and unusual the books are, and so I was really looking forward experiencing them for myself.
The first book “My Brilliant Friend” is the May selection for the Seriously Planning bookclub. The books follow the lives of two friends Elena and Lila from childhood to their early twenties and chronicles their friendship, deep love, loyalty and hatred for each other. Lila is brilliant but stops her studies after elementary school because her father refuses to let her continue. She studies Latin and Greek on her own regardless and has a natural aptitude for learning and a quickness of mind that far surpasses Elena. Elena on the other hand, completes elementary school, middle school, high school and university by studying relentlessly and through feeling keenly the difference between herself and her friend. Whether it is in beauty, in intelligence, in love, in marriage, or any other sphere, to Elena it constantly feels like Lila is better and luckier than her, and the series is about their lives and how they influence one another.
My Brilliant Friend is an incredible book, and the author paints a detailed picture of Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood that makes it alive and real. She makes you feel like you can see, smell, taste Naples in the 50s and because you care about the characters, you willingly immerse yourself in their terrifying world.
As I was reading I became increasingly sad and upset about what was happening to the characters and my husband reminded me that if reading the books is not giving me anything in return, it is always okay to stop. And while I agree with that in principle, and in fact have recently stopped reading other books that I didn’t find beneficial, I couldn’t stop reading these books. These books are heartbreaking and violent and bring you into a patriarchal world in which women are not safe from either strange men or the men that love them. It is a world where wealth and powerful family protect women. In poverty and alone, they are defenceless against men. Normally I would be unable to withstand such a read but I found it impossible to stay away from these characters. While reading these two books, I would get upset and vow to put them aside because the world Elena and Lila inhabit is cruel and whether it is marriage, love, intimacy, protection, religion, family, friendship, nothing is sacred or timeless or meaningful. Before long however, I would pick them up again because I needed to know what happens next to Elena and Lila.
The only thing that is true is their friendship, which stays like a thread between them despite everything that happens. As much as they want to, they cannot ignore each other. They are extraordinary characters and despite the cruelty of these books, what I think I gained from them is how Elena and Lila fight for each other and for themselves, and how much they crave education and learning. This theme is strongest in the first book “My Brilliant Friend” and so I think I liked that book more. In the case of Lila for example, she can’t continue her studies past elementary school, but she gets a library card for each member of her family and uses all of them. She studies Latin and Greek on her own and is much better than Elena at it, in her jealousy that Elena is continuing to middle school, she tries to get Elena in trouble so that perhaps Elena cannot go to school as well, but she still forces Elena to study when Elena loses her courage for school. She quizzes Elena about her middle school and high school education so that she can keep up, she writes for years from when she leaves elementary school so she can improve and polish her writing skills, she practices her English and Italian, though there are times when she stops reading, it is never a permanent separation. In the case of Elena, she is terrified Lila will leave her behind and that fear pushes her when they are in school together. Her fear that she always be second to Lila despite being the one in school pushes her when she is alone in middle school and beyond. The Neapolitan novels give you courage because despite heartbreak after heartbreak, crushing incident to crushing incident, these girls are fierce and independent.
Have you read this series? I’m not sure if I’ll read Book 3 (my heart needs some time to recover!) but this has definitely been a reading experience I won’t soon forget.