Julie Christine's Reviews > My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
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it was amazing
bookshelves: italy-theme-setting, contemporary-fiction, best-of-2015, read-2015

My Brilliant Friend, the first in Elena Ferrante’s quartet about best friends from a Naples ghetto, is a novel about power: who holds it, how it is won and lost, and what happens when power shifts occur. It is a story of violence: domestic and cultural, physical and emotional. All this, in a novel about two young girls exploring friendship and adolescence in post-war southern Italy.

Elena Greco and Lila Cerrullo are daughters of working class families, growing up in a crowded, poor, electrifying neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the mid-1950s. Elena recounts their adolescence from the remove of middle age, stating:
I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. ... Life was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.

Parents beat their children, brothers beat their sisters, husbands beat their wives, and the wealthy Solara brothers keep iron rods in the boot of their sports car, so handy for street fights.

But Elena and Lila are part of a blossoming generation, one that—like the city of Naples itself—is rising out of the traditions of violence and oppression that go hand in hand with poverty into something brighter. Or so it appears at the beginning. By the end of this first installment of Ferrante’s epic Neapolitan series, it seems Fate lifts up one of these young women while holding the other hostage to her culture.

Lila is a force that defies definition. A scrawny child, she is like an orphan in a Victorian melodrama: all skin and bones, street smarts and fearlessness. The neighborhood and its residents—from her family, her schoolmates and teachers to the boys who are enchanted by the flare of her intelligence and her eventual swan-like beauty—are blank slates upon which Lila mercilessly etches her vision, her truth.

And yet, such promise in a young girl with a sparkling intellect is thwarted by her own ambition. Money is what Lila seeks to yank her from the doom of the women around her: marriage and children before they are twenty, followed by decades of drudgery, their beauty a brief flame snuffed out by duty, submission, ignorance. Lila’s childhood dream of becoming a famous novelist is replaced by the more practical plans of starting a luxury shoe business with her troubled older brother, Rino. But even that scheme is pounded out of possibility by their cobbler father, until one of Lila’s suitors steps in with salvation. Ironically, it is Lila’s beauty that offers her the kind of power she can’t reach even with her preternatural intelligence.
...something had begun to emanate from Lila's mobile body that males sensed, an energy that dazed them, like the swelling sound of beauty arriving. The music had to stop before they returned to themselves, with uncertain smiles and extravagant applause.

The tension of female friendship has rarely been so sharply and tenderly displayed in literature. Elena is objective neither with herself nor with Lila, and the push-pull of loathing and love is keenly felt. From the moment Lila drops Elena’s beloved doll into a hole, your sympathies are torn between these two girls, one so cruel and strong and vulnerable, the other naïve and graceless. Elena follows in Lila’s wake, helpless against Lila’s fierce charisma. Although it is Elena who is granted the opportunity to pursue an education beyond middle school, it is Lila who directs her learning. Lila quizzes her, mocks her, competes with her. It is Lila who learns her Latin declensions first, and best. If Elena studies Greek, Lila checks out the available dictionaries from the library. By high school, Elena finds herself formulating her thoughts and arguments as Lila would, using her diction. Elena moves forward in guilt mixed with a sense of triumph—it is she who is offered the education, despite knowing the Lila is her intellectual superior.

Ferrante’s writing is stripped to the bone, but the marrow within is so rich and satisfying. This world of post-war Naples is vivid and visceral, every line colored in with careful detail. Elena returns from several weeks of summer holiday to find
...the sun had made me shining blonde, but my face, my arms, my legs were as if painted with dark gold. As long as I had been immersed in the colors of Ischia, amid sunburned faces, my transformation had seemed suitable; now, restored to the context of the neighborhood, where every face, every street had a sick pallor, it seemed to me excessive, anomalous.

The family dynamics (and there is a helpful Index of Characters at the beginning) are free-ranging and messy, feeding directly into the sea of village life—secrets are on full display, feuds are fast and furious, and allegiances change as peace is brokered, then broken. These characters will consume your heart.


My Brilliant Friend ends with Lila seeming to give into the inevitable: marriage at the age of sixteen. But recall that this is a story of power. And this story has only just begun.






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Reading Progress

March 7, 2015 – Shelved
March 7, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
April 14, 2015 – Started Reading
April 14, 2015 – Shelved as: italy-theme-setting
April 14, 2015 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
April 15, 2015 –
page 104
31.42% ""I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. ... Life was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.""
April 16, 2015 –
page 104
31.42% ""...something had begun to emanate from Lila's mobile body that males sensed, an energy that dazed them, like the swelling sound of beauty arriving. The music had to stop before they returned to themselves, with uncertain smiles and extravagant applause."\n \n I love this book."
April 16, 2015 –
page 164
49.55% "last update: "...something had begun to emanate from Lila's mobile body that males sensed, an energy that dazed them, like the swelling sound of beauty arriving. The music had to stop before they returned to themselves, with uncertain smiles and extravagant applause.""
April 17, 2015 –
page 233
70.39% ""...the sun had made me shining blonde, but my face, my arms, my legs were as if painted with dark gold. As long as I had been immersed in the colors of Ischia, amid sunburned faces, my transformation had seemed suitable; now, restored to the context of the neighborhood, where every face, every street had a sick pallor, it seemed to me excessive, anomalous.""
April 18, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
April 18, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
April 18, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

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Julie Christine I tried reading this a couple of years ago and it just didn't fly. Now I'm having a hard time setting it aside to do my own work. Funny how minds and moods change.


Julie Christine lovelovelove Oh, so glad I gave this a second go!


Jaidee Fabulous review....I have one of her books on my TBR list and can't wait to read it!!!


Joyce Some review Julie. This is much more than I imagined it would be and five stars too.


Angela M Great review, Julie . I loved it too and hope to get to the next two soon .


message 6: by Jill (new) - added it

Jill Julie, for some reason, I have you down as the person who recoed Days of Abandonment to me -- a book I finished and absolutely loved. From this review, it seems as if 5-star is de rigeur for Elena Ferrante. Now I will place this one on my list as well. Great review!


Julie Christine Jaidee wrote: "Fabulous review....I have one of her books on my TBR list and can't wait to read it!!!"
Thank you, Jaidee! Funny- I started to read this a couple of years ago and it jut didn't take. This time around I had to tear myself away. I hope you love it!


Julie Christine Joyce wrote: "Some review Julie. This is much more than I imagined it would be and five stars too."

I know, right? So profound. Wow.


Julie Christine Angela M wrote: "Great review, Julie . I loved it too and hope to get to the next two soon ."

I don't buy books often, but I think these will go into my home library! Thanks, Angela :)


Julie Christine Jill wrote: "Julie, for some reason, I have you down as the person who recoed Days of Abandonment to me -- a book I finished and absolutely loved. From this review, it seems as if 5-star is de rigeur for Elena ..."

Thank you, Jill. I know you will love it!


message 11: by Debbie "DJ" (new) - added it

Debbie "DJ" Wonderful review Julie...I had to add, thank you :)


message 12: by Suzy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Suzy I'm going to wait till I finish to fully read your review. I'm loving this book too, but have been sick so put it aside. Hope I finish before the library wants it back :)


Julie Christine Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Wonderful review Julie...I had to add, thank you :)"

Thank you, Debbie! I hope this is one you enjoy!


Julie Christine Suzy wrote: "I'm going to wait till I finish to fully read your review. I'm loving this book too, but have been sick so put it aside. Hope I finish before the library wants it back :)"
Suzy, take care of you!! Sending feel good thoughts.


Julie Christine David wrote: "Julie...another great review. I've read all three Ferrante novels; I found them to be progressively more complex, as the characters aged, life experiences registered their effects on Lila and Lena,..."

David- thank you. I can't wait to continue the journey . . .


message 16: by Suzy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Suzy Did you know that there is speculation that Ferrante is a pen name? Info on this toward the end of this article. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/04/...


Julie Christine Suzy wrote: "Did you know that there is speculation that Ferrante is a pen name? Info on this toward the end of this article. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/04/..." Yes- she's such an enigma! There was even a rumor a while back that she wasn't a woman. NO idea how that came about or why ...


message 18: by Suzy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Suzy Julie wrote: "Suzy wrote: "Did you know that there is speculation that Ferrante is a pen name? Info on this toward the end of this article. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/04/..." ..."

yes, in this article it speculates which male author she actually is. Interesting . . . I did not know.


message 19: by Suzy (last edited Apr 25, 2015 07:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Suzy These characters will consume your heart. Exactly! Hard to get these people off my mind - I can't clear the library list for book 2 fast enough!


message 20: by Suzy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Suzy David wrote: "Julie and Suzy...and, we get to look forward to "The Story of The Lost Child", being "fourth and final volume in the series, to be published in September 2015", according to Ferrante's website. Ho..."

In all the blurbs, this was billed as book one of a trilogy. But at the end of the print book I was reading, it noted the one coming out in September, so I say yay!! I better get cracking on books 2 and 3.


Julie Christine Suzy wrote: "David wrote: "Julie and Suzy...and, we get to look forward to "The Story of The Lost Child", being "fourth and final volume in the series, to be published in September 2015", according to Ferrante'..."

Yes! I noted in my opening sentence this was a quartet. I have best laid plans to read the other two before September!


Carol Another gorgeous review, Julie! I've just started this story.


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "Another gorgeous review, Julie! I've just started this story."
I am SO excited for you, Carol!! Thank you for the lovely comment!


Renata What a stunning and remarkable book. I finished reading it this afternoon and so filled with the lives of all the characters I feel at a loss for words. Your review is brilliant ... Sigh. Glad I have three other books to look forward to.


Julie Christine Renata wrote: "What a stunning and remarkable book. I finished reading it this afternoon and so filled with the lives of all the characters I feel at a loss for words. Your review is brilliant ... Sigh. Glad I ha..."

Oh Renata, thank you! AndI'm so happy that you are enraptured by Lila and Lena. Yes, it is a bittersweet journey. Enjoy every step. xoxo


Sharon Quiroz I liked your power observation. And loved that the adversaries were both women.


message 27: by Denise (new) - added it

Denise E. amazing review seriously


Julie Christine Denise wrote: "amazing review seriously" Thank you, Denise!


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