What comes to mind when you think about Italy? La vita è bella, pizza, Vespa, Romeo & Juliet? After reading My Brilliant Friend, you can add something else to the list: Naples and the Neapolitan novels.
“My Brilliant Friend” is the first book of the four Neapolitan novels (where Neapolitan refers to pertaining to Naples), written by Elena Ferrante*. The author mentioned in an interview that the four books come together as “a single novel”, published in multiple parts for reasons of length and duration (Harper’s Magazine, 2014).
*I found it interesting that Elena Ferrante is actually a pseudonym, and the Italian novelist’s identity is still unknown despite the intense research done to unveil her identity.
The novel follows the story of two friends, Lenù and Lila, who have an interesting friendship … let’s say it’s complicated. They both live in Naples (Italy), in a poor neighbourhood, in the 1950s. The whole story is narrated by Lenù, as she recounts their childhood (up to 16-ish years old):
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.” (Lenù)
While discovering the micro-cosmos of the Neapolitan neighbourhood, we are faced with interesting themes, just to name a few: family violence, parents’ lack of interest for their children education, jealousy, and the uncertainty surrounding teenage flings. Although I do not find these themes particularly enjoyable, and also none of the characters was particularly charming, the novel was pretty engaging and it made me want to read the other novels of the series.
However, I found two aspects that can be improved: the translation and the cover design. Regarding the translation, I felt the language used was a bit unnatural (the book was originally written in Italian). And when it comes to the cover … I personally think that the covers of the whole series are so unattractive! If the book had not been recommended to me by a friend, I would not have been attracted at all to pick it up. It got me questioning whether it’s the same in other countries, so I plan to do a “Book covers around the world” post about them, like the one I did for “The Pearl” by Steinbeck.
To sum up, My Brilliant Friend is an intriguing first book of the Neapolitan Novels quartet. It is the coming-of-age story of two Italian girls who learn to make their way through life, facing the ups and downs of their childhood. I recommend it if you’re into realistic novels or if you want to read what Fatema Ahmed called “a feminist polemic” story.
Till’ next time … happy reading!