Monday, April 18, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2012)

Some books are plot driven; My Brilliant Friend isn't one of these books.  The plot is secondary to the characters and setting.  Two Italian girls of Naples, 1958, whose threads of being sometimes come together, sometimes pulled far apart, but crossing and re-crossing, weaving a friendship.  Lila, the brilliant friend of the title, difficult, enigmatic.  Elena, Lenu, smart and pretty and nice, but always a known entity next to her mysterious friend.  I think they key to this book may lie in something Lila says to Lenu about the neighborhood bad boys (the Fonzies, in m 70s soaked brain), glamorous, shady, brutal, wealthy, the Solara brothers.  Lila's brother becomes close to them - a ruse by one brother to get to Lila, and Lenu asks her angry friend "What's wrong with it?"  "They're dangerous."  "Here everything is dangerous."  This setting and place that Ferrante creates, remimagines, is dangerous.  It's rough, full of violence, domestic  and otherwise.  Sad widows, murder, poverty, punishment. It's that time after the war but before the sixties, when a generation of youth are discovering rock and roll and sex; the generation before, the Fascist generation, had nearly destroyed everything.  Against this backdrop, Ferrante uses dark, ragged strokes to draw the families of this neighborhood in which these two friends live.  These are delicate little dolls; everyone is meaty, thriving characters.  It's for this that you keep reading; a character sucks you in and then spits you out, and another character does the same.  If Lenu and Lila are the main two threads, the dozens of minor characters who weave back and forth and in and out of their lives are what creates the the tapestry at the end.  I wasn't in love with this book; it feels unfinished (it's a trilogy); the lack of plot made it read like a personal memoir (and since no one knows who Elena Ferrante really is perhaps that's at least partly true) and I'm not a fan of the memoir.  But the strong writing kept me going.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Definitely not plot driven; this reads more like a personal memoir (of someone with a very, very good memory of a long ago time). Which, considering the mystery of Elena Ferrante's identity, could very well be true. I'm not a fan of the personal memoir; what kept me reading was the characters, setting, place and time. I was drawn to the story of the two friends, whose lives intersect in both negative and positive ways; the heartache and wonderment and jealousy of teenage friendship. The foreign setting of Naples 1958, as a generation discovers rock and roll and sex. A violent, sexist society, one generation ruined, the next trying to survive trying to make it, someway. "Here everything is dangerous" says one of the friends, and that seems to be the (depressing) theme of the book. The story doesn't feel finished; it's part of a trilogy, so perhaps danger is left behind for richest untold.

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