Do you read to take yourself to another place, another time?
Every now and again I come across a novel so powerful that I feel drawn to the people and places it describes. This book, or series of books, took me straight to Naples, the island of Ischia and Florence. It is the story of a friendship, the complexity of families, the city of Naples and Italy.
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
At the heart of this story is the intense and often difficult friendship between Elena and Lila, two very bright girls born into a poor neighbourhood of Naples in the 1950s. It is a raw and sometimes brutal account of the lives of families surviving in a neighbourhood run by a mobster family – the Solara’s. The novel explores the girls’ development from bright and competitive students to young women forced to deal with the realities of life. Their paths are destined to diverge and meet again over the years but their bond remains strong.
My Brilliant Friend explores Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood. This is not the Italy of elegant Renaissance art and Roman architecture. This Italy is rough and raw. Families share tiny one bedroom apartments, buildings are crumbling and sanitation is less than desirable.
As the girls grow and explore life outside their neighbourhood the novel takes you into Naples and the electrifying pace of this most chaotic of Italian cities. In stark contrast, a summer break on the island of Ischia transports you to the sun drenched rocky shores and azure blue seas you imagine when you think of the Amalfi coast.
Many readers have difficulty with some of the violent themes in this series of novels. And yes they can be confronting. The scenes of children hurling rocks at each other and the ever-present menace of the Solara family are at odds with the sanitised view of life presented to us these days.
But the books are also honest. Relationships are never linear or one-sided. Elena and Lila and their siblings, friends and lovers change. As do their relationships with one another.
As the reader, you feel the jealousy, competition and desperation the girls feel to pull themselves out of their difficult reality.
I was entranced by My Brilliant Friend and devoured the next three books in the series. Ferrante’s writing is stripped back and free from pretence. Her characters are flawed and of another time yet still relatable. I found it impossible not to feel empathy for Elena and Lila and their experiences. I did not want their story to end.
Ferrante paints a compelling picture of post-war Naples and Italy as a city and country undergoing rapid change. The stories told in this series of books show, through the lives of a few small families, how the people of Italy responded to that change.
Next year we will take a trip to the south of Italy to visit family and explore the shores of Ischia. And I will be thinking of Lila and Elena.
Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the Neapolitan quartet? Did you love these books as much as I did?
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