Childhood never seems as close by as when you read it in a book. That is particularly true of reading My Brilliant Friend. Despite being set in a working class neighbourhood in Naples, Elena Ferrante’s book provides a window back into a familiar sense of childhood, and the point where it merges into adolescence.
My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series of four Neapolitan Novels, follows Elena and Lila, two neighbourhood friends whose lives are intertwined as a result of their situations and sharp minds. They both live in a poor neighbourhood in Italy, where money determines their direction in life. The two swing between being best friends and fierce competitors in the classroom, until Lila’s life veers to the left, while Elena’s continues onwards. Throughout, ashamedly recognises Lila’s superiority, first mentally, then physically.
While she has the opportunity to pursue her studies, it is with a bittersweet recognition that her academic success came as her friend, who could have reached even greater heights, was thwarted.
The neighbourhood is a completely different world from the classroom, where different rules apply. Here, a sharp mind does not compare with bravado or money. Of the first, Lila has plenty, giving her a distinct advantage. There is a volatility simmering beneath the everyday life of the neighbourhood, and a sense that anything could happen.
For Elena, life swings between triumph and disappointment for her as she navigates her way through school, relationships, work and family expectations. There is something recognisable about the way life seems to happen to Elena, without her having any real sense of control. She is at the mercy of the adults in her life, whose decisions Elena, and the reader, often has cause to doubt.
The book is easy to read, and offers a touch of nostalgia for that time in childhood when you are on the precipice of adolescence, and when the world consists only of school, families and the people living around you in the neighbourhood.