My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It was a sad day when I finished My Brilliant Friend, which unstintingly documents the narrator Elena's intense relationship, starting when they were both six years old, with her neighbor Lila. Although the two girls are distinctively drawn, they resemble one person divided into soul and body. Elena is the part of the self who used education to escape a lower class neighborhood in post World War II Naples, and Lila, the physical and naturally intelligent self, a ravishing Sofia Loren-type beauty who did the best she could to master her surroundings.
Death and abuse are everywhere. In these desperate conditions Elena is always convinced that Lila is better than she is in everything. The boys in the neighborhood share Elena's enthusiasm for Lila. Once she develops, all the boys are mad for Lila, while Elena is hidden behind ugly glasses and acne. Lila not only gets Elena to learn the Greek alphabet before school starts (Lila is no longer a student), she edits an essay that Elena submits to a little journal. When the novel ends with Lila's wedding (I had expected her literal death, not her figurative death) there is a rare glimpse that perhaps Lila is not so special -- or perhaps she was special but trapped.
Ferrante writes in a spare, ironic style reminiscent of the best Italian writers, Verga for tragic realism and Pavese and Levi for existential questions about the self and other.
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