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Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


Elena Ferrante is one of those illusive authors.  She refuses to give interviews; what we know about her is summed up in a succinct statement at the back of her novels.  Neopolitan by birth, her novels have an autobiographical feel in a very visceral sense.  Her prose has a violence that is shockingly truthful, but its grittiness also makes it a joy to read.  Perhaps it is through her writing we glean more about this author than any interview she may give.

My Brilliant Friend is the first of her Neapolitan novels, and is a story about two best friends: Lina Cerullo, the daughter of a shoe repairer and Elena Greco, the daughter of a city hall porter.  We follow their early years up until their mid-teens.  Narrated by Elena, it explores the mixed emotions in their relationship, generated as much by competition as by mutual affection and admiration.  Set in the 1950s in an impoverished Neapolitan neighbourhood, violence and love are intertwined, both at home, as well as on the street.

While the lives of the two girls provide the main plot, the real issue is social power dynamics. Throughout the novel, there is a perpetual flux between the empowered and the disempowered,  with constant displays of power inversion and subversion.  During the 1950s, the old order of the post-war years is being swept away, and with the new generation comes optimism, energy and Rock and Roll with its influence on lifestyle and attitudes.  Women are being educated, opportunities begin to open up for them and this is when the novel becomes interesting.

Ferrante compares these two girls and their opportunities. With nods towards Alcott’s Little Women, the girls’ first influential novel, and Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, their individual destinies become inevitable as the novel unfolds.  Ferrante knows that education provides real power for women.  Elena has the support of her local teacher, Maestro Oliviero.  Like a fairy godmother, Oliviero persuades Elena’s parents to push her into secondary education.  Lina, on the other hand, by all appearances the more brilliant of the two, having taught herself to read at the age of 3, as well as Latin and Greek in her later years, is prevented from furthering her education.  Lina is not regarded as worth saving by Maestro Oliviero.  “Do you know what the plebs are, Greco?” Oliviero asks Elena.  Despite all of Lena’s brilliance her future restricts her to women’s traditional boundaries of domesticity and marriage.

Within the novel, there is far more going on than an in-depth study into these girl’s complex relationship. Peel back the top layers and there is a darker force at work.  Ferrante’s narrative framework and tropes are borrowed from fairy tales.  She is true to her Neapolitan heritage, tapping into a collective consciousness. Giambattista Basile, a fellow Neapolitan, collected versions of fairy tales, including Cinderella.  His sister published them posthumously in 1634.  In Ferrante’s novels the local camorrista, Don Achille Carracci, is the archetypal "Ogre of Fairy Tales"; teachers are fairy godmothers.

The last chapter is called The Story of the Shoes.  With this in mind, it is no coincidence that Lina designs and creates her own shoes — a Cinderella, by all appearance at first, in control of her own destiny.  When her wealthy fiancé, Stefano, comes to try on the shoe, it does not fit. Undeterred, she continues with her engagement.

The status this wealthy match bestows on Lina is unavoidable.  Like a prince and princess, Lina and Stefano take on the role of neighbourhood royalty “They displayed kindness and politeness toward everyone, as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighbourhood of indigents”.   She wows her friends with material possessions: she will have her own new house with running water; the couple are immaculately groomed: “always dressed like movie stars”.  Envy, like a mercury thermostat vial on a hot day, runs high. Despite such status symbols of success, Ferrante dismisses marriage — it is neither an escape route for women out of poverty nor the inevitable drudge of domesticity — and by doing so she rejects the traditional finale of fairy tales.

These underlying classic narratives contribute to the richness of Ferrante's work.  If fairy tales are about empowering the impoverished and the weak, thereby subverting the established order, she couldn’t have used a better genre to deliver her message.  This combined with her characters’ emotional honesty makes Ferrante's novels a must-have read.

Written by Rachel Boser

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