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Elena Ferrante: L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend)

The story starts when the narrator, Elena Greco, currently living in Turin, receives a phone call from Rino, living in Naples, about his mother, Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila. She has disappeared. He has searched everywhere but cannot find her. Elena recommends that he let her be. We learn that Lila is a computer expert and that she appears to have cleared everything out of her house. Lila was Elena’s best friend and the book goes on to tell the story of their friendship, as the title of the book implies.

Elena and Lila met at a young age, when starting school. They soon became close friends, though Elena was always somewhat in awe of Lila. Lila was tough, (almost) fearless and highly intelligent, as the title tells us. She dared Elena to go to places and do things she had never done before and Elena reluctantly went along, all the while admiring Lila for her bravado. Elena will imitate Lila in her actions. The area they live in is violent and it is this, above all, that Elena recalls of their neighbourhood, as she recounts tales of people suffering violence and dying violent deaths. Lila’s father is a shoemaker, struggling to support his family but he is not averse to violence. Nor is Elena’s father, a porter at the town hall. Moreover, there seem to be continuous feuds between families and even within families.

Lila is always getting into trouble. She is openly rebellious at school and even though she (perhaps inadvertently) causes the teacher to fall and bang her head, the teacher loves her, as she is a genius. She gets into fights with boys, particularly the bully, Enzo, with the two throwing stones at one another. Lila is somewhat better at dodging the stones than Enzo. However, at school she shines. She taught herself to read and write and, despite the fact that she speaks Neapolitan dialect at home and at school, can produce literary-sounding Italian, gleaned from her reading. Her parents are reluctant to encourage, let alone pay for any schooling for their children and particularly not for a girl but Lila manages to learn on her own. When the school has inter-class competitive tests, Lila is always called on and invariably not only triumphs over her peers but over those in higher classes.

The story follows the life of the two girls, sometimes together, sometimes separately, over the next few years, ending when they are sixteen. Elena is always in Lila’s shadow, even if this shadow is generally self-imposed. Even when Lila is unable to continue her education, as her parents will not pay for the extra tuition she would need, Elena always feel that Lila would have done better. At times, for example, when Elena is learning Latin and then Greek, it is Lila, despite having had no formal teaching in these subjects, who studies them on her own and is able to assist Elena.

The other area in which there is some competition between the two girls, albeit, once again, seen only by Elena, is sex. Elena reaches puberty well before Lila. At that time, it is clear that the boys are more attracted to Elena, not least because Lila remains an aggressive tomboy and because Elena has large breasts, something she quickly realises is appealing to boys. However, that gradually changes as Lila does, of course, reach puberty and while her breasts may be smaller than Elena’s, boys do seem to find her attractive and, inevitably, it is she who more successful with the opposite sex.

The other aspect of this story that makes it so interesting is that Ferrante gives us a large, complex and rich cast of characters. We follow the lives of several families in the neighbourhood. In particular, we follow their squabbles, both within families and between families. These squabbles all too often break out into violence. Lila and Elena themselves have often varying relationships with these families and the family members, varying from closeness to open hostility.

Elena moves on with her studies while Lila has to work but her brilliance is still to the fore. For example, she designs some shows for her father who, of course, does not begin to appreciate his daughter’s work. Lila continues to read and is by far the main user of the local library. Both girls write, though, at this stage, at least, they are not too successful in that sphere.

This book had considerable success, both in Italian and English, and it s not too difficult to see why. A lively account of a friendship, a challenging social environment which both protagonists manage to more or less overcome, though not without some difficulty and a rich cast of colourful characters all make for a good read.

Publishing history

First published by E/O, Rome in 2011
First English translation by Europa in 2012
Translated by Ann Goldstein