Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 10, 2013

My Brilliant Friend (2011), by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

My Brilliant FriendMy Brilliant Friend is fascinating story.  It’s the first of a trilogy, and I have the sequel, The Story of a New Name on the TBR as well.

The prologue lures the reader in, straight away.  A young man from Naples phones the narrator in Turin in search of his mother.  At first she dismisses him in irritation, but then investigates.  The mother has vanished.  Every trace of this woman is gone, as if she has decided to expunge her existence from memory.  The narrator is half-admiring, half-alarmed by this wilful act of self-negation – but she is just as wilful herself and she decides that she will not let her childhood friend disappear.  And so she thwarts the erasure by writing Elena’s story, a loving memoir that is also an act of revenge…

Elena and Lila have been Best Friends forever.  They grew up in the fifties together in Naples in the shadow of Vesuvius.  The volcano is a metaphor for their friendship which slumbers for periods of harmony and then erupts into drama.  It also symbolises the battle for dominance between these two: like humans labouring away for centuries to build their own world only to have nature destroy it all in a catastrophic moment, Elena struggles to be the ‘best’ only to have Lila undercut her efforts with a nonchalance that is even more deflating.

Their competitiveness extends to everything.  Both are very clever girls, and they are determined to rise above the grim poverty of their Naples.  Handicapped by their family’s expectations about girls and education, they are encouraged by a determined schoolteacher and stimulated to achieve by outperforming each other.   In puberty, their unspoken rivalry for dominance includes achieving the most alluring sexuality even though there are unbreakable constraints about expressing it.  In a society where the males of a family protected a girl’s virtue with violence both against her and any would-be suitor, Elena broods over the changes in her body and the pimples on her face while Lila affects carelessness because she has yet to develop.

From the prologue we know from the start that Elena has indeed escaped Naples.  And we also know that Lila has a family of her own.  The novel creates a compelling narrative out of a coming-of-age story because life deals the cards unfairly.  Elena, once she’s made it to middle school, wins a scholarship to the next level – even though she doesn’t know what it is or where it can lead.  But Lila’s father dooms her to working in the family shoe-repair business, where she nurses ambitions of designing elegant hand-made shoes while studying Greek and Latin on the sly so that she can still outdo Elena academically.  But readers will make up their own minds about who comes off best in the battle over boyfriends…

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite so confessional as this:

I used [Alfonso] to escape Nino Sarratore.  When, for the first time after Ischia, we saw each other from a distance, Nino came towards me in a friendly way, but I dismissed him with a few cold remarks.  And yet I liked him so much, if his tall slender figure merely appeared I blushed and my heart beat madly.  And yet now that Lila was really engaged, officially engaged – and to such a fiancé, a man of twenty-two, not a boy: kind, decisive, courageous – it was more urgent than ever that I, too, should have an enviable fiancé and so rebalance our relationship.  (p. 254)

and this, exploring schadenfreude in their relationship:

I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila.  I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences.  In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighbourhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become.  It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.  In Ischia I had felt beautiful, and the impression had lingered on my return to Naples – during the constant plotting with Lila to help her get rid of Marcello, there had even been moments when I thought again that I was prettier, and in some of Stefano’s glances I had caught the possibility of his liking me.  But Lila now had retaken the upper hand, satisfaction had magnified her beauty, while I, overwhelmed by schoolwork, exhausted by my frustrated love for Nino, was growing ugly again.  My healthy colour faded, the acne returned.  And suddenly one morning the spectre of glasses appeared. (p. 257)

Quel désastre! Le Specs!  I shouldn’t laugh: I was able to ditch mine when I turned 16 (though they are back now, of course, a consequence, my optometrist tells me, of all that reading *sigh*.  Vanity no longer being an issue, I wouldn’t mind so much if I didn’t keep losing them.

There’s an interesting little aside about the limitations of dialect, which had extra resonance for me after I attended the AALITRA symposium on translation this week.  There are many references to switching from dialect to Italian, an allusion which probably has more significance to Italian readers than it can have for me.  But what interested me was Elena’s complaint that she has no one to talk to about the books she is reading at school.  Alfonso, a diligent student, seamlessly switches as she does, but he ‘never abandons dialect’ out of school, and in dialect it was hard to discuss the concept of earthly justice (p. 259) In other words, the language of the street makes it impossible to discuss certain concepts and ideas.

I’ve only passed through Naples on my way to Pompeii but in this novel the sense of place seems brilliantly evoked.  The writing is powerful, and the translation by Ann Goldstein is excellent.  I’m looking forward to reading the second novel in the trilogy!

Author: Elena Ferrante
Title: My Brilliant Friend
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922147462
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Fishpond: My Brilliant Friend
Or direct from Text where you can also find book group notes and an eBook version.


  1. A great book, as is the sequel :)

    Incidentally, this is what I was talking about earlier. This was originally released by Europa Editions in the UK and US towards the end of 2012, only now being released by Text in Australia. I think this is pretty much the norm for books not published by the big houses…


  2. Have been intrigued by this author for some time, all her books sounds fascinating, if somewhat traumatic. Definitely on my list to pursue.


    • Yes … we get to the end of the book and we know a lot about these two girls … but we still don’t know why Lila has left her home.


  3. I loved this a great take on the two paths tale and like the mystery around the writer as well ,all the best stu


    • Tell us more about the mystery, Stu!


  4. I also thoroughly enjoyed My Brilliant Friend. Read it last month I believe. I think it’s supposed to have a couple of follow-up books – a trilogy or something similar.


  5. This was my top read for 2012, and ‘The Story of a New Name’ will be at or near the top this year. I’m happy you liked it.


    • Yes, I’m looking forward to reading that one too, always nice to discover a new author to like!


      • I just found ‘The Story of a New Name’ and got it downloaded onto my Kindle. Oh what a nice start to my day. Thank you!


  6. […] that it’s all the more astonishing when the bond is broken in adulthood.  As in the Ferrante novel My Brilliant Friend  the catalyst for severance is a departure into a different social world while the other stays […]


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