I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.
The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.
To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.
“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”
It is a run-down but aspirational neighbourhood, where no-one is quite in desperate straits but many feel poverty nipping at their heels. As such, subtle differences and small events can have huge effects on fate and fortune. And the primary difference in people’s lives is the level of education they receive. Every school year costs more money, but brings promise of greater reward, and the girls’ families have different responses to this dilemma, driving the course of their lives, though not their friendship, apart.
For me, this book was slow to get started, the section covering younger childhood did not grip me. But it became engrossing as Elena grows up and becomes aware of the wider world, and the wider implications of everything she sees and does. She is by no means perfect, but she makes familiar teenage mistakes that endeared her to me. And just as I found with childhood/teenage friendships in my own life, I constantly changed my mind about whether her relationship with Lila was the best or the worst thing for her.
“Lila was too much for anyone. Besides, she offered no openings for kindness. To recognize her virtuosity was for us children to admit that we would never win and so there was no point in competing, and for the teachers to confess to themselves that they had been mediocre children. Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.”
It’s a very human drama, with a wonderful wider cast of characters who the girls have known since childhood and who come and go in closeness to them. But this novel is so much more than an exploration of friendship. As well as the importance of education and opportunity (and the effect when one or both is lacking), it explores how language and violence demarcate the poorer in society. It explores all the different types of love – family, friends, romantic and intellectual. And of course there’s the coming-of-age element – the realisation that the world is at once much bigger and much smaller than it was your child self, and the hope and anguish that come with that.
Ferrante is apparently a recluse, with no known photographs or biography out there. By writing a series of books with a main character and narrator called Elena she invites the question of whether this might be autobiographical. Certainly, the level of detail makes it feel supremely real, but what rings most true for me is the sense of anger and frustration at the limits and injustices the people of this neighbourhood face.
“It was like crossing a border. I remember a dense crowd and a sort of humiliating difference…They seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of wind. I was astonished…They didn’t see any of the five of us. We were not perceptible. Or not interesting.”
For me the more pertinent question is who is the “brilliant friend” of the title? Lila is clearly the brighter of the two girls when they are younger, and finds clever ways to push Elena on intellectually. Then again, “brilliant” can also refer to beauty and in this they swap. As children, Elena is pretty blonde and friendly while Lila is dark, plain and bad-tempered. But as they get older Lila becomes beautiful – stunning even – and learns to act the part that is expected, while Elena feels herself ugly, spotty, bespectacled but also lonely and separate (though of course this is through the lens of teenage hormones and she doesn’t seem to have any trouble attracting boys). So throughout I felt that the title referred to Lila, but toward the end of the book it is Lila who calls Elena her “brilliant friend”.
I really did become engrossed in and thoroughly enjoy this book and am eager to read the next book in the series, The Story of a New Name. There are four “Neapolitan Novels” in total, with the English translation of the final volume due out this September.
L’amica geniale published 2011.
This translation published 2012 by Europa Editions.
Source: Birthday present from my Dad.