Lila and Elena, two childhood friends in a neighborhood of 1950s Naples, both wear the moniker “my brilliant friend,” but there is no question which of the two Ferrante meant. Elena continues her schooling through high school in this first installment of the trilogy of novels Ferrante has written about the two, while Lila, incandescent Lila, is held back from further schooling by her family claiming they cannot afford it. We ache for her.
Ferrante captures the uncertainty and confusion of youth through the voice and perspective of Elena. But what we really want is what everyone wants—the thoughts and voice of Lila. We can’t get enough of her, even when we only see her from a distance. We long to know what she thinks. We know, just like Elena does, that Elena is only a conduit, pretty and clever, but a poor substitute for the real thing. If we could only get to Lila, all will become clear. Lila radiates something like unfiltered truth, understanding, knowledge. Her opinions are the ones that matter. But even then, we wonder if we would be accepted into her inner circle. Elena is our conduit.
Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels feel especially real when describing the resentments and jockeying for influence among the boys seeking favors of Elena and Lila, and the confusions these two radiate when considering the options left open to them in a culture not known to value contributions from the female sex beyond housekeeping and baby-making. We yearn to know, too, the thoughts and desires of the parents of Lila and Elena—to know if they are being fairly portrayed by Elena or if there is something more going on which she does not have the understanding yet to relate.
By the end of this, Book I of L’amica genial, we get the uncomfortable feeling that we are on the edge of something unknown, that life will play out for these two much like it does for us: we grasp in the dark for something we cannot see, and hope that it will bring what we imagine, not knowing if the direction is the right one. This marvelous recreation of two lives in a poor neighborhood of Naples a long time ago draws us in completely and involves in in a way that only great literature can.
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