Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend - Book One: Childhood, Adolescence by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2012) 331 pages
                                                         *** Spoiler Alert ***

Who is this Elena Ferrante and why has she captivated so many?

I approached the series with some healthy skepticism – Ferrante's four part series has had a volcanic effect on the literary establishment. I engaged with some reserve and not a small part of jealousy. The language was not beautiful or elegant I quickly affirmed (I don’t know who is to blame for this – Ferrante or the translator Ann Goldstein). The scenarios are frighteningly bleak and many characters very unsympathetic but ... the scenes are so powerfully wrought and touch on the inequality of the young female in Italian society so profoundly that it is impossible to ignore or dismiss. 

It pecked away at me - it reinforced the many small and big things I had seen and experienced as a young female and adult in an Italian family: the lowered expectations for girls of a certain class, the disrespect accorded them, the inordinate emphasis on physical beauty and sexuality, the achingly painful aspirations of the two girls Elena and Lila who wanted more, so much more.

In the first novel of the Neapolitan series, Elena Greco, also known as Lenu, tells the story of a tempestuous friendship with Lila Cerullo (also known as Lena), which spans sixty years. Their beginnings in a poor Napoli neighborhood in the 1950s are humble but their aspirations are not. Already I am smitten ... I was known by both names as a girl - Lenu and Lena. This pains me somehow. It makes their travails much more immediate. I identify with both - the cerebral, bookish girl and the sexy, bad girl. 

The girls compete in all areas of their lives – Lenu, daughter of a porter, is bright but Lila, daughter of an equally impoverished shoemaker, is brighter and they both know it. This ignites a lifelong rivalry – profound, if largely unspoken – in intellectual achievement, their physical looks and love interests. At all stations of their personal development, Lenu feels dwarfed by Lila even while she witnesses the ugliness of Lila’s daily existence. Once when she defied her father’s wishes, Lila is unceremoniously thrown out of a window.  The shocking nature of the scene has a visceral effect. The lives and happiness of these young girls are worth nothing – if they are not valued as sexual beings, as wives and mothers, they seem to have no value at all at times. 

When Lila’s parents are unable to afford education for her beyond elementary school, Lenu is both distressed and relieved but at last here, academically, Lenu might shine and overshadow her friend. Lenu excels with the assistance of sympathetic teachers and a yearning, inquisitive mind. Thwarted by her parents, Lila and her brother Rino focus on the design of a pair of shoes that they hope to sell with the Cerullo name and become a thriving business that will sustain her family.

Lila develops into a rare if prickly, foul-mouthed beauty coveted by all the boys in the neighborhood and in particular by Marcello Solara, son of a Camorrista and loan shark - the wealthiest man in the neighborhood who runs a prosperous café. Marcello and his brother Michele Solara are rich, violent, dangerous bullies, universally feared and hated. She aggressively rejects his advances despite her family’s imprecations even while he courts Lila and the whole family with gifts and offers of financial support. Marcello even goes so far as to offer to buy the hand-made shoes that Lila has created.

When Lenu is afforded a chance to escape to Ischia for the summer to care for some children, she seizes the opportunity. At Ischia, she falls in love with Nino, a studious boy from her neighborhood who is the son of a poet and a reputed womanizer. Finally, she sees herself as desirable, worthwhile, but only because Nino has bestowed a kiss on her. Excelling academically will not do, a boy must validate her sense of self-worth. The summer is almost ruined by the advances of Nino's predatory father Donato - he has distinguished himself in the neighborhood by bedding Melina, an unstable, impoverished widow who has become obsessed with him. 

Ferrante’s eye is unsparing and unsentimental towards Italian family life. Lenu’s mother is dreadful – mean spirited, cold and physically repulsive - she initially objects to Lenu’s small summer adventure. If she is unhappy why should her daughter be happy? This last item might seem a small literary distinction but to have an Italian born writer cold-heartedly analyze the patriarchal nature of working class life and wade through the treacly stereotype of maternal love in Italian culture is truly revolutionary for this reader.

Lila appears to find a way out of poverty by accepting the attentions of Stefano, a local grocer, who displays courtesy and respect for Lila. With his attention (and money), she grows even more beautiful and the couple plan to marry.

The final scene of book 1 is the wedding of sixteen year old Lila and Stefano. Lila faces  a horrifying discovery – Stefano, whom she has exalted and loved above the rest, has decided to throw in his lot with the hated Solaras in some sort of business enterprise.

I admit that I was lukewarm on the plot until the wedding scene. Lenu observing Lila at the church:
"As a child I looked to her ... to escape my mother. I had been mistaken. Lila had remained there, chained in a glaring way to that world from which she imagined she had taken the best."
Lila is now trapped in her role at sixteen. Inspired by Nino's intelligence and seriousness, Lenu vows to escape her family, her neighborhood, her life. 

What follows for Lila is horrifying ... and must be discussed in book 2. 


Elaine said...

Thanks for shedding a different light on these novels, Michelle! I started the first and couldn't find my way into it, but perhaps I gave up too soon. Then again, maybe the sadness you imply will drown me. A very interesting review!

Anonymous said...

hahahahahahahah I am so glad you have #ferrantefever too. You've done a great job with this review, Linú.