My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante

Book cover

This is a wonderful, naturalistic novel. It’s very simply the story of a girl/young woman and her friend, growing up in midcentury Italy in a poor neighborhood. Not a whole lot happens, and certainly nothing too dramatic, but the entire book gives a rich sense of lived experience. Despite the fact that the prose is pretty spare, it also manages to be very evocative of certain types of experience that I’ve shared, even though my background is totally different from the characters’. Months after finishing the book, I can still call to mind the vivid pictures I had of certain scenes, such as the walk that Elena and Lila take to the beach when they’re young.

While reading the book, I was constantly thinking of other works that it reminded me of. This is not at all because it is derivative or unoriginal, but rather because it gets at a core of experience that other (great) writers have also reached. A few that come to mind are A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Joyce’s short story “Araby” (in Dubliners), Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, “Les Miserables” (I’ve only seen the musical, haven’t read the book). It occurs to me as I write these out that they are all about poor people, as is MBF. I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but it also makes sense.

I don’t really want to say much on what the book is “about,” because I don’t think the story is in service of anything in particular. But the main thing that stuck with me is a sense of how our perspectives on things–a really wide variety of things–change over time and with experience. This includes the people in our lives, ourselves, specific experiences, what is valuable or admirable, general concepts such as “education,” “work,” and “love,” and many more things. Ferrante doesn’t do anything in particular to foreground this, but it just comes through in the fabric of the story.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars