My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein

My Brilliant Friend
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My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein

Book one of the Neapolitan Novels

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 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.

My Brilliant Friend is a ravishing, wonderfully written novel about a friendship that lasts a lifetime.  The story of Elena and Lila begins in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. The two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else, sometimes to their own detriment, as each discovers more about who she is and suffers or delights in the throes of their intense friendship. There is a piercing honesty about Ferrante’s prose that makes My Brilliant Friend a compulsively readable portrait of two young women, and also the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country.


I was recommended Elena Ferrante by a friend, along with cautionary advice that Ferrante was ‘close to the bone’, a phrase somewhat akin to James Wood’s description of her writing as ‘intensely, violently personal’.

I started with The Days of Abandonment, perhaps Ferrante’s most popular book in English, narrated by a woman whose husband unexpectedly leaves her. While this particular plot is familiar, Ferrante’s version is unlike any other I’ve read. Her prose is stunning and polished, yet retains a raw, stripped-back feel. To be so closely invested in a character who is openly distraught was both distressing and irresistible.

Ferrante’s latest novel to be translated to English is My Brilliant Friend, a work more accessible than The Days of Abandonment, but no less powerful for it. Billed as a three-part bildungsroman and set in a poor, violent Neapolitan neighbourhood during the 1950s, the novel explores the friendship between Elena and Lina. Opening with Lina’s planned disappearance, at age 66, in an attempt ‘to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind’, Elena decides she will write down their story. It is through her eyes that we see the two lives unfold. The girls are poor and studious, but early on it becomes clear that while Lina is the more vivacious, the more brilliant, she is also the ‘bad one’, scary and dangerous, while Elena is the good girl.

One of the aspects I loved most about My Brilliant Friend was Ferrante’s biting portrayal of a friendship (Elena and Lina are the most brilliant example of ‘frenemies’). The two girls are competitive, caring, jealous, needy; small slights can cause true suffering, while careless gestures of affection – great happiness. Such moments ring with familiarity, but, as with The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante represents this commonality in a way I’d never encountered before. Her novel is clean, pared back and, as my friend had warned me, so close to the bone you can feel your teeth grinding. The result is shockingly good.

Bronte Coates is the Online & Readings Monthly Assistant. She is a co-founder of literary project, Stilts.

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