Elizabeth Collins reviews ‘My Brilliant Friend’: A vicious full circle of female friendship.
I have never found it so hard to articulate my thoughts on a book. At first I questioned whether this was because My Brilliant Friend is part of a four-part series, but it’s not; in my mind, they are one book. I have decided (albeit for now) that it is because author Elena Ferrante managed to entwine, define and articulate countless themes and losses into rich, detailed paragraphs, all without overwhelming the reader. Quite the contrary, the well-crafted lack of a plot always made me want to come back for more.
Because this is how life actually is – events occur, fall upon us, we make decisions with harsh consequences – and there is no order, no balance. But Ferrante has managed to take the lives of two childhood friends, and box all their troubles and successes into a definable concept. Taking messy, horrifying events and giving them a ‘boundary,’ or border, a theme which continuously appears throughout the quartet.
Not to mention the ever-changing and hostile friendship between the two main characters, Elena and Lila; a bond magnificently remaining unbroken due to loyalties that go beyond even their own understanding. Love and loss battle the tests of time, set under a glowing Vesuvius, in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of post-war Naples. The only plot this series follows is the (frequent) building and breakdown of ‘boundaries.’ Ferrante uses this metaphor to give us an insight into Lila’s unsettled mind. She places people she’s close to inside a box to give them an outline, to fit them into her story, before they break out of their box and become an entirely different person, dissolving before her eyes. The only person Lila can count on, excluding herself, is Elena.
The author leads us to think that every event in these girls’ lives can be traced back to events from very early childhood. Decisions they made without yet having learnt about consequences, which saw them in a replica of those same situations some years later. Ferrante beautifully strings similar events together over the course of four books, without boring the reader, but leaving them in a sense of awe at how unpredictable and predictable an event was all at once.
Elena and Lila’s lives diverge sharply when Lila marries the son of local loan shark, Stefano, who assures her that they will do better than their parents, breaking out of the molds laid down by their preceding replicas. He lures Lila with the promise of security for her family, for herself and for her future, and she thus happily accepts the role of housewife, rejecting the feeling that she was destined for more.
But Stefano turns out to be exactly like his father, a crook and a fake, living under the premise that all that glitters is in fact gold. Mirroring a scene where, years earlier, Lila and Elena heedlessly took money from Stefano’s father as replacement for their dolls, which they claim he stole. This is the first of many occasions in which Ferrante delivers us these themes of revenge and repetition, a vicious full circle that is seemingly inescapable for Lila, the only key to freedom from gender roles and familial demands being education.
Reading this series not only consumes you with the intricate complexities of female friendship, but also guides you through an uneasy journey of political unrest and the recovery of reality in a society drained of a moral compass, accelerating to the future with new technology, brash new generations and brandished classism. This is an essential read that mixes politics with social class, affairs with affection, and loyalties with betrayal.