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Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Brilliant Friend

The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante are a publishing sensation. A tetralogy about a pair of friends who grow up together in Naples, the books are huge worldwide bestsellers, and it certainly hasn't hurt that there is a mystery as to Ferrante is, since that is a pseudonym. I tried the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and alas, whatever has engaged her large readership eludes me. I will not need to read any of the other books.

"Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad." The narrator is named Elena Greco, and thus begins her friendship with the girl who is always smarter and more glamorous. In fact, for the entire book it seems that Elena is envious of her friend, who really isn't that great of a friend (she does scare off a boy who tries to molest her with a shoemaker's knife).

Elena is a sad sack narrator: "I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions." She complains about her acne and though she is very good in school--in Naples in the '50s not many girls went beyond middle school, but she goes to high school, she isn't very assertive. She seems to live vicariously through Lila, and the book basically covers who the girls are interested in and finally ends with Lila getting married to a very rich man.

The characters, including the main duo, are not very interesting, and I got confused with all the different boys who go in and out of their lives--Nino, Pasquale, Antonio, Stephano--they all seemed to blend into one. I did know that Marcello was a bad one; he is the one who puts a move on Elena and later proposes to Lila, though she will have none of him.

It's all a soap opera, and not a very intriguing one, as much of it deals with the shoe business. I can't imagine what got people interested in it. The one thing it does succeed in is painting a picture of Naples of the era, of the way families were constructed and how girls were supposed to behave: "I said no because if my father found out that I had gone in that car [with a boy], even though he was a good and loving man, even though he loved me very much, he would have beat me to death, while at the same time my little brothers, Peppe and Gianni, young as they were, would feel obliged, now and in the future, to try to kill the Solara brothers."

I also found the relationship between girls and mothers interesting, as if the mothers were living through their daughters. "My mother, even if her wandering eye seemed to gaze elsewhere, looked at me to make me regret that I was there, in my glasses, far from the center of the scene, while my bad friend had acquired a wealthy husband, economic security for her family, a house of her own, not rented but bought, with a bathtub, a refrigerator, a television, and a telephone."

Other than these sociological insights, I did not find My Brilliant Friend very suspenseful or interesting. I am saved the time of having to go through three more books.

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