Shoulda Coulda Woulda Book Review: My Brilliant Friend

my brilliant friend cover picture

Time on to-read list: 2 years

Reason for being on to-read list: “Eh… I’ve been burned with that kind of book once too many times…”

Reason for finally picking it up: It was on-sale at the bookstore. Thanks, Barnes and Noble!!

Verdict: Why did no one drag this out of my to-read pile and scream things at me until I opened it right nownownownownownownow???

When did we all start talking about Elena Ferrante, guys? I can’t remember- was it last year? Maybe 2013? I know she’s been writing for far longer than that, but it was definitely only recently that she became A Thing. Whenever it was, we should have been talking about her sooner.

And with different words. Better words. Words whose value hasn’t been sucked out by the marketing blurbs they’ve been a part of, with the same accompanying modifiers (if I never hear “compulsively readable” again that would be okay with me, marketing departments). Too many eyes will glaze over when I use these words that would once have excited the grab-the-keys-and-run-to-the-bookstore response this book deserves. And that might make you, like me, not pick this up for absolutely years after you read this.

So I need better words. Words that will make you pick it up tomorrow. Because I still can’t believe I somehow developed the impression that this was a book that I could miss. That somehow this wasn’t a series of books that I should have had on pre-order every time like it was Game of Thrones? (… or, you know, something better than that given the quality of the last installment.)

But in the absence of an unused vocabulary floating around somewhere I’ll try to convince you with the words I have, because- and please read this in the tone of your dad giving advice at a crucial life moment-I don’t want you to make the mistakes that I did, sonny boy.

How do I love this novel? Let me count the ways…

* * *

My Brilliant Friend is the first installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy. It is an old woman’s memories of her friendship with a girl named Lila in the slums of 1950s Naples. They are both clever girls growing up in the midst of a grinding cycle of poverty and isolation generated by the problems of the post-war, post-Fascist Italian state (and the pre-war, mostly-in-name-only Italian “unification”). Both of them, along with the other children of the neighborhood, have a possibility of escaping the cycle and breaking out into the new Marshall Plan supported dolce vita– and some of the story is about that. But not mostly. Mostly it’s about what it’s like to be blessed/cursed enough to have a childhood friend who is the center of your universe, and how that friendship can literally change all the things in your life, and make you the person that you are in the process of becoming.

Straightforward enough, yes? You’ve read that before. Sure…but then how does she do it so poignantly? Why did I spend hours upon hours with this book yesterday, unable to put it down? How did such an ordinary story work such undeniable magic?

There are many answers to that, but let’s start with this: The story. The plot was the most natural, organic thing I’ve ever read. She started telling it and kept on doing it without pauses for literary reflections or metaphors, or for pretty much anything that might send the “oh right, this is fiction,” signal to your brain. She let the damn thing be and run its course without interfering. She didn’t shy away from having her character be involved in all the quotidian things of childhood or adolescence- zits, dresses, best friends, boyfriends, finding out what bad words mean, and endless status competitions. But never once did she make it feel tired or like something I’ve read a zillion times. Nobody came equipped with signifier clue words or pre-packaged, recognizable YA storylines, with immature emotional truths being repeated in italics, in between descriptions of clothing and hair. And you know what was fascinating? There totally was a popular girl everyone wanted here, there were mean bullies, nerdy intellectuals, hot jocks, slutty cheerleaders, apparently motivationlessly awful villains, and our heroine was even intellectual and had glasses. But that never occurred to me until I started to write this review.

This is mostly because Ferrante allows her characters a kind of full, honest emotional range of expression that I’ve rarely seen in books about children and teenagers. She conveys the pettiness and center-of-the-universe feeling that characterizes childhood without ever quite making you detach from or become disgusted with the characters involved. When someone’s doll is thrown away, and another character retaliates, instead of rolling your eyes and getting ready to referee whose fault it is, Ferrante just keeps staring at both characters and watching them go through that moment and what happens afterwards. There’s no adult intervention, whether that’s with an adult character or with an adult narrator.

As is typical with Ferrante, this is deliberate a choice that serves several purposes at once. One of which is to highlight the lack of fully developed adults anywhere in these children’s lives. This is one of the many effective ways Ferrante finds to seep you in the atmosphere of the Naples neighborhood where this all takes place, right from the beginning, but beautifully, dropping it in between the cracks of action and thought:

 “I waited to see if Lila would have second thoughts and turn back. I knew what she wanted to do, I had hoped that she would forget about it, but in vain. The street lamps were not yet lit, nor were the lights on the stairs. From the apartments came irritable voices. To follow Lila, I had to leave the bluish light of the courtyard and enter the black of the doorway. When I finally made up my mind, I saw nothing at first, there was only an odor of old junk and DDT. Then I got used to the darkness… We kept to the side where the wall was, she two steps ahead, I two steps behind, torn between shortening the distance or letting it increase. I can still feel my shoulder inching along the flaking wall and the idea that the steps were very high, higher than my own apartment across the way… There was an odor of sautéing garlic. Maria, Don Achille’s wife, would put me in the pan of boiling oil, the children would eat me, he would suck my head the way my father did with mullets…”

Never once does she need to set aside pages and pages of description as some authors do, because it’s given to us in pieces like that, while we’re following the action, until we have a full picture of a crumbling courtyard of a creaky old apartment building on a beaten down street in a bad part of town without ever really knowing how we got there.

She also does a lot, effectively, with repetition. Repetition shows us a lot about why the characters are the way that they are. The violence of the neighborhood, in particular, is depicted with a frighteningly normalizing banality. We see violence happen over and over again- not as an isolated, cinematic horror, the fright of one’s life- as something mentioned as an afterthought, “they argued, and then sometimes, after dinner, he beat her.” The deliberate use of “sometimes” was chilling, like we’re not even hearing about all the other times when it happens. It’s not even worthy of comment. What’s even more terrifying is the dispassionate, impartial gaze turned on it by a narrator who has never known anything different. It only occurs to the sixty year old character who is the actual narrator of the story about two-thirds of the way through to get outside of herself and mention that she realizes now that her neighborhood was not the norm- it’s like in telling the story she put herself back under the spell and forgot that herself. It takes something 2015 Hollywood-level cinematically, publically violent for anyone to feel the slightest bit bad about something that happens- like throwing your eleven year old daughter out a window into the street. (Just for instance.) The pernicious, weed-like growth of a particularly violent form of aggressive masculinity is at the root of most of the problem, but its societal reinforcement and indeed, the respect shown for those who display it, is shown, through this enforced repetition, to be the true cancer that not even young boys with the best of intentions and a deliberate intent to break the cycle seem to be able to escape. (Not to mention the girls who never had a chance to begin with.)

Something that further increased the powerfully naturalistic impression I got from her writing was her gentle use of not-quite chronological time. Time in the novel wavers into being, then very slowly circles back to its origin point until you’ve almost forgotten where you started. But even this tried and true literary device never felt like a literary device. Again, it was so well and seamlessly executed it felt like a natural, organic process that was necessary to telling the story. It was like what happens when someone is telling you a story and realizes you don’t have the context to understand it, so they back it up and up until they feel they’ve given you the whole story, and then only just remember why they were telling you the story in the first place.

But beyond that there was the prose itself: Ferrante has that magical Tolstoy thing. The power of it isn’t in the individual sentence, which I guarantee you will be mostly perfectly ordinary, but a string of sentences put together in just the right order. It is almost never going to be a striking word choice that nabs you, but rather a continuous flow that lulls you into its depths so that you’re surprised awake occasionally, just realized that it’s happened to you. I honestly can’t think of anybody else except Tolstoy when he’s not ranting or religious, Austen when she wasn’t mischievous, who can give the impression of being so utterly absent, as if someone simply left a kind of recorder on that would let you see what was going on inside and outside of the characters’ heads.

But while the plot is compelling enough, the hot, poisonous atmosphere and her rare gift for naturalistic, fade-away, barely-there powerful writing are more than enough reason to show up, all of these things are what you notice later, after you’re done and you feel ready to start talking about it all.

It’s these girls. It’s Lila. Lila, Lila, Lila. If you’ve ever been friends with someone who was demonstrably smarter than you (or you were so convinced they were as to make no difference), then you know Lila. You know what it’s like to know that no matter what you do you’ll always feel inferior- whether they praise you or encourage you or not. It makes so much sense to me that Lila was the transformative experience for Elena. She’s a heady thing for a child to experience. She is a person who is seemingly born free of gaze. She’ll process what you say for the words you actually use- not the social status you have while you say it, not the yearning she has to be like you or not like you at all, nor does she care about the image she is projecting to you. One of the things the narrator worries about in Lila in 1950s Italy is that she doesn’t have the instinctive, eyes down response that the other girls do when they are getting harassed on the street. Lila threatens people with a knife, or simply asks them curious questions about what on earth they’re talking about when they do that to her. She literally stares down or completely ignores a gaze that is the all-encompassing foundation, path and walls of all the women (and, to be frank, most of the men) around her. That’s an intoxicating cocktail of a thing to be around. A possibly dangerous, even ruinous thing to be around, if you’re a smart, insecure teenager with an imagination and a constant societal message that you are not good enough.

Like Elena, the narrator. Her character development was very cleverly done. She had us, and Elena, so focused on her friend that her own story seems to happen under the radar, in asides, as if just necessary for context and to get us to the next Lila story. Which is a brilliant way to depict someone with the kind of self-esteem issues and brewing existential problems that are the major driver of most of Elena’s choices. She becomes a person somewhere along the way, without even realizing it- she builds an entire personality around Lila, the only thing she can see as worth motivating herself for in her horrible little dirty world. But it makes her beautiful moment of self-awareness at the end of the novel all the more poignant. She is shocked to discover that a disappointment she has in her own life, unrelated to Lila in any way, is important to her. This realization of her own, independent being as a person means she is able to have her first out of body experience, and look beyond the isolation and suffocation of her neighborhood to see herself with a gaze that might actually benefit her, in the end:

“I discovered that I had considered the publication of those few lines, my name in print, as a sign that I really had a destiny, that the hard work of school would surely lead upward, somewhere, that Maestra Oliviero had been right to push me forward and to abandon Lila. “Do you know what plebs are?” “Yes, Maestra.” And at that moment I knew what plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and was no leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.”

But most of all there is the friendship between these two girls. The content of it is some of the most honest that I’ve seen. It’s neither a sentimental Victorian ode to sisterly support nor is it as cynical as some more modern reinterpretations of female friendship would suggest. It trusts you to understand that these are real people and to acknowledge that because you are willing to acknowledge it within yourself without ever telling you to acknowledge it. We know that the narrator doesn’t mean it maliciously, necessarily, when she needs a boyfriend because she thinks her friend has one, that she throws her friend’s doll down a hole because her friend did, that she feels better if she looks a little better than her sometimes. We also see that whenever something truly bad happens to her friend she notices it and she helps- she gets her through some tough situations when she has no obligation to. We also see how fixated she is on her friend, and how nothing is really worth it to her if she doesn’t share in it with her: she shows us what it means when your life is really, as literally as possible, almost entirely about your perception of another person. She does a great job of making us root for the friendship, hate the friendship, understand it and scream at it, each in its appropriate turn, like all great, long friendships. I’ve never seen someone so accurately render a relationship that is so needed and nourishing and so hurtful at the same time.

I do not claim the novel is faultless. There were two moments where her assured voice broke and she fell down into the exaggerated metaphorical exercises I was so happy to see absent from most of the book. (Though one of those times is forgivable, because it came from a dramatic adolescent who dramatically drew out the metaphor herself in the weird, obsessive way that teenagers do. I also did wish that we might have spent slightly more time with the narrator herself, in her own home and her own life so that we might have gotten to know her better. But that was a reader’s wish for a sympathetic character to know herself better, mostly- that’s not what this story was about. It would have been the poorer for following what I wanted it to do. The faults were mostly the faults of the character, put there deliberately to emphasize a character trait.

So perhaps it is nearly faultless after all. What did I miss? Maybe someone else can tell me where she went wrong, because I can’t find it. Or I probably could, actually, but I think I’ll be much too busy reading the next installment: The Story of a New Name. Which, I predict, is exactly what you’ll be doing as soon as you finish this book.

Go on. I’ll get you started…..

 “My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage…..”

…now go find the rest!