Claudia Putnam's Reviews > My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
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really liked it

I know others disagree, but I didn't find this as stylistically interesting or quite as Dostoyevskian as The Days of Abandonment or The Lost Daughter. But make no mistake, this is a Russian novelist in Italian skin. If the characterizations, eccentricities, and operatic intensities don't give it away, check out the cast at the beginning of the book (I would have preferred to have this held back as an appendix; editorial misstep, IMO, asking us to keep track of people before we have met them).

I happen to be reading Colm Toibin's Nora Webster at the same time, so I'm struck by the ways in which small impoverished communities perpetrate violences (Toibin's interests are more subtle, but they are violences all the same) as a means of policing their members so that few can get ahead and almost no one can leave. And both worlds are Catholic, and concerned with the complete sexual possession of their women and the absolute protection of the male ego, already wounded by poverty and disenfranchisement by the larger society. Access to education is strictly controlled as is even a sense of the larger world--hardly anyone at all in the neighborhood even knows anything about the rest of the city, and the women are especially ignorant of it. It is difficult to get even an elementary school diploma, let alone to proceed to middle school and beyond. Therefore, the options for marriage are limited to the neighborhood, and even the beautiful Lila, whose intelligence exceeded anyone ever heard of in the neighborhood but whose parents nixed education past elementary school because they could not see the point (they barely saw the point of even grade school), does not imagine who she might have married had she even ventured beyond her local environs. For one thing, her brother would have beat up anyone who looked at her for more than a second. Nearly to death.

So, though she could have anyone in the neighborhood, for the benefit of her family, it comes down to the two richest men around, one of whom she detests and the other she can convince herself loves her. But does he, or is she just the most valuable possession any man around can win?

That is something for her best friend, the narrator, Elena, who is, somehow, allowed to continue through high school, to try to determine. Elena has her own struggles, and her own ambivalence about Lila and her high-handed ways. Elena is smart but not as gifted or as fearless as Lila. She has to work harder, but this perhaps makes her stronger and more resilient. Her success, however, causes her anguish, for while Lila who does not really belong in the neighborhood nonetheless will always have a place even if it breaks her, Elena's success is likely to drive her out of it.

Lila has always seemed a little cold, willing to do anything to get her way, but was she? What if Elena is the ruthless one? What if it takes less passion, actually, to have drive?

One thing is clear, if it wasn't already to anyone with observational skills or personal experience--young people have no judgment. Elena is a pinball in a lot of ways and it's a wonder she gets anywhere at all. These girls, with everything on the line, no one to guide them, and no experience at all of the world, and holding themselves responsible for everything and more. Yikes, yikes, and yikes.

Meanwhile, Lila is experiencing this phenomenon of "dissolving margins," which interests me because in Ferrante's other significant works (I am not considering Troubling Love as much, because it's an earlier effort, almost a rough draft for the Neapolitan Novels, or a prelude, and stylistically it falls between the two sets of books and feels as accomplished as neither, which is fine, give the girl a break, though I wish she'd go back to the ideas in it, which involve the relationship between mother and daughter in the context of this very rough neighborhood in which the Neapolitan Novels are set), it is the Elena character, or AN Elena character who has these dissolving margins.

Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and apparently no one knows who she is. I am sorry about this because I have this fantasy of being able to talk to her about a thing I am struggling with in one of my own writing projects and I wonder what she would say about it.

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Reading Progress

May 19, 2014 – Shelved
May 19, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
June 1, 2015 – Started Reading
June 6, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Karen (new)

Karen I just read this as well, and I agree with everything you said -- not as stylistically interesting as I had been led to believe, but so interesting and so revealing about life for women and girls in this time and place. Although I know that the men are coming from a place of disenfranchisement and poverty, I still came to hate them, however. It was amazing to me that education was so hard to obtain in Italy in the 1950s and 60s. I had no idea.

Claudia Putnam I think she is trying to do a very hard thing regarding the shifting understandings at this time of life, the changing times, the social complexities, and the narrator's own ambivalences and needs regarding her friend. So a complicated style might not serve her. She has to be as clear and hard-eyed as possible because the narrative task itself is risky. Some of her other works are more stylistically challenging for the reader, so she is quite capable of it--specifically I am thinking of when she embodies a character who is far more thin-skinned and subject to these dissolving margins and mood shifts. That's when a different kind of style does suit.

message 3: by Claudia (new)

Claudia Egads. I remember no toilet paper in beautiful hotels the summer of '59! And that was in Rome! Italy - in particular, Southern Italy - was 20 years behind the rest of Europe at that time.

message 4: by Claudia (last edited Apr 29, 2018 09:56AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Claudia Putnam I didn't see this comment before, Claudia... probably because the notifications system made it look like I was commenting to myself... :) Interesting observation, though all the hotels of Europe are behind the US in general, and still. In Italy in 2004 you were lucky to get a shower and often the toilet was IN the shower....

I think a lot of Europe was still recovering from the war in the 50s. Something Americans, not having fought on our own soil since the 1860s, can't imagine.

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