This is my review of My Brilliant Friend, the Italian book by Elena Ferrante. I am trying to read a book from every country in the world. The last book I read was Nigeria: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
IN SHORT: This is the story of two best friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in 1950s Naples. It is the first of four books — or as Ferrante (a pseudonym has said), the first of four volumes in a single book.
THE BEST BIT: What a singular book. The precision of its prose is tremendous — but it is more than that, it is something about the way the narrator, Elena (not accidentally, the same name as the author) describes her young life in Naples: It is bursting with sentiment — in the sense of regret, love, ambition, frustration — and utterly without sentiment: We see things, conveyed and dismissed in the space of a handful of paragraphs, that would suffice as the sole focus of another book — for example, when Lila’s father literally throws her out the window of their home into the street. I began to think that the prose moved like water — and then I thought instead that it was we who seemed to move, and their lives were our passing scenery, and we could neither speed or slow our pace; we could only take it all in. In that, I felt it was so lifelike, without endeavoring to seem so: With little preparation, we encounter scenes of enduring heartbreak — such as two moments when a teacher dismisses Lila to her fate as a wife, rather than a scholar — and then we move on, with disarming rapidity, to other things, only to unravel those torments over the years to come.
The exception, I felt, was the wedding scene that is this volume’s culmination. It is more than a crescendo; it is the end of the symphony. I don’t remember when I last read a book that reminded me so much of music — in the prose, yes, but more in its existence: its worldview, its structure, its symphonic gathering at the close.
All I know is that I finished My Brilliant Friend midway through a dinner, alone, at a restaurant, and began to read a new one — which I might have liked but put away, disgusted at its lack of artistry. How could we waste our life’s energy on anything less than magnificence?
Two small things I loved — well, one small and one really quite big. Elena’s description of Lila: “One day I saw her on the street and she looked like a spirit, the spirit of a child who had eaten poisonous berries.” (This made me think of the children separated from their daemons in Northern Lights.) And when we see, near the end, who is the brilliant friend.
More Around the World in Books:
Why I’m reading these books
Norway: The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Europe: The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Portugal: Blindness by Jose Saramago
Spain: The Infatuations by Javier Marías
Germany: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous