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‘My Brilliant Friend’ book review: An unsentimental portrait of friendship

Keyur Basnet

Keyur Basnet

‘My Brilliant Friend’ book review: An unsentimental portrait of friendship

What I liked about My Brilliant Friend is that it’s an unsentimental portrait of friendship—with rivalry, jealousy, and the need to put oneself first

‘My Brilliant Friend’ is the first book in Elena Ferrante’s four-volume series spanning almost 60 years. The first part is set in the 1950s in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. It follows two girls, Lila and Elena, through their school years and adolescence. The girls meet when they are each 10-year-old and develop a complex and conflicted friendship.

What I liked about My Brilliant Friend is that it’s an unsentimental portrait of friendship—with rivalry, jealousy, and the need to put oneself first. It chronicles the lives of young girls as they struggle to understand the world they live in and thus themselves. My Brilliant Friend, however, isn’t just a story of friendship. 

Ferrante also tells the story of a neighborhood and a city as it transforms over the years and how the events that occur shape the girl’s thought processes and lives. It’s a story about a community and how the lives of people are often interlinked. You could say it’s a coming-of-age novel of not just two girls but of a place as a whole. 

Themes like sexual jealousy, shame, rivalry are generally underexplored in fiction. My Brilliant Friend does a wonderful job of bringing these to the forefront and talking about things that we would rather not confront. It also feels like great character studies of different personalities. 

My only complaint with the narrative is that it’s a bit slow and events tend to drag on sometimes. If you can put up with that, and you definitely should, My Brilliant Friend, with its exploration of complicated issues like love, abandonment, the impact of violence can be just the contemplative read we all need in the extremely volatile time we are living in today.  

About the author

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist. She apparently refuses face to face interviews and has only given a few written ones. She makes no public appearances and once told her editor that she would not be promoting her books because, “she believed that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” 

Her works, originally published in Italian, have been translated into many languages. The four volumes known as the ‘Neapolitan quartet’ (‘My Brilliant Friend’, ‘The Story of a New Name’, ‘Those Who Leave’ and ‘Those Who Stay,’ and ‘The Story of the Lost Child’) were published by Europa Editions in English between 2012 and 2015. My Brilliant Friend, the HBO series directed by Saverio Costanzo, premiered in 2018. Time magazine in 2016 named Ferrante as one of the 100 most influential people.

Three stars

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35036409-my-brilliant-friend 

Fiction

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante

Published: Europa Editions

Publisher: 2012

Pages: 331, Paperback