Wednesday, March 09, 2016

My Brilliant Friend (by Elena Ferrante)

This is the first book in the widely acclaimed Neopolitan series. Finally, I would know what all the fuss was about! Except... I don't really get what all the fuss is about. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the book (I did) or that I won't continue on to the next books in the series (I probably will). But maybe it suffered a little from overhype.

The good stuff: the central female friendship is a complex mix of passionate love, rivalry, and envy,that is very persuasive. I also enjoy how Lila remains absolutely consistent as a character, but my sympathy towards her increases dramatically over the course of my reading as I began to see her how Elena sees her. It wasn't until the end that I realized what a trick Ferrante had pulled off there.

I also love the title, particularly because of a reference late in the book. The ending in general is super strong -- the bathing scene before the wedding is lovely, the final image is a great cliffhanger. It has a strong sense of specificity in terms of setting -- I absolutely 100% believed this was Naples at this time in history, post World War II. The world Ferrante creates is completely real and it's one I haven't read about before, so points for that too.

All that said, I do have a few quibbles. The prose itself I don't find particularly enthralling -- at times it was even awkward and somewhat confusing. But then again, it is in translation, so I made allowances for that. I know it's specific to the time and place, but I got really tired of all the machismo and paternalism that basically makes up the entire plot of the book. All the women are defined by their relationships to men, all the men do is posture and fight and browbeat the women, and many female characters are sidelined -- Elena's mother is a shadowy, hated background figure; sisters aren't really mentioned; Melina is just some crazy lady.

I am assured that once the novels get to the 60s, feminism comes into play and these mores are challenged. So this makes me feel like Ferrante knows what she is doing, and going for verisimillitude here.  I think I'll need to read the rest of the books to form a true opinion of that, and am curious if anyone reading this has gone further in the series and has thoughts on that.

All in all, this made for fun conversation and was a good read!

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