Yes, it’s just as good as everyone’s been saying—and I’m very glad I waited to read it.
No doubt you’ve heard of the Neapolitan novels, the quartet of books by Italian writer Elena Ferrante (whose identity is not known; she’s used a pen name since her first novel was published more than twenty years ago) and translated by Ann Goldstein.
I do wish someone would give Ann Goldstein a medal, because the translation is superb, as far as this non-Italian speaker can tell—it flows exactly as it should; one never stops to think of it as a translation.
My Brilliant Friend tells of the childhood and adolescence of Elena (or Lenu), the narrator, and Lila, her enigmatic, incredibly, almost dangerously intelligent friend. Both girls are sensitive, inquisitive, brave, desirous of accomplishment; but Lila has “the characteristic of absolute determination,” while Elena sometimes flounders, unsure of herself, looking to Lila as an anchor. Their subtle competition with each other wends through the novel, as Elena reaches back into her memory to understand her friend and rival. This is best bildungsroman I’ve read since Jane Eyre, though of course completely different in scope and setting. Lila and Elena, both born in 1944, live in a rough neighborhood on the fringes of Naples; parents hitting children and husbands hitting wives are commonplace. In their neighborhood wealth stands out, as do book smarts, though neither is particularly welcome; Elena recalls, “we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
The structure of the novel reminded me of a sidewinder; it moves forward, but often by moving sideways. Elena sets a scene—a confrontation with rock-throwing boys after school (considerably less tame than a similar scene in Anne of Green Gables, by the way)—only to skip away laterally and return to it later. Ms. Ferrante is so talented, though, that these parries and feints aren’t jarring, but fluid.
I put off reading these books for two reasons, one good and one bad. The bad reason is that I find the covers off-putting, though thematically appropriate. The good reason, or the reasonable reason, perhaps, is that each installment of the series appeared a year apart, the last in September 2015; I suspected, based on the praise I heard, that I would not want to wait before delving into each subsequent novel. That suspicion was correct; within a half hour of finishing My Brilliant Friend, I was twenty pages into The Story of a New Name. I can’t wait to see what happens, how Lila and Elena will illuminate each other’s lives.