I listen to a lot of podcasts: Longform, This American Life, Radiolab, Slate Political/Cultural/DoubleX Gabfest, Wait wait don’t tell me, Hardcore History, The House, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Planet Money… (& Serial, duh, but back before it was cool, double duh). And most of these podcasts include some kind of ‘recommendations’ section where the hosts will suggest something they’re enjoying and think listeners might enjoy too. Most of the time the suggestions are cultural objects (occasionally they’re hilarious (and lazy) suggestions like ‘nutmeg,’ or ‘leggings’.) But in the past year Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (beginning with My Brilliant Friend) has been recommended on almost all of them. There’s only so many times a book can be suggested before you feel like you’re ignoring a fated read. So I coopted their recommendations as my own and urged *my* brilliant friend S. read with me. And then my other brilliant book club friends, too.
So we’ve all be reading it and I’m anxious to hear what these smart women have to say about the book. Because that’s what reading My Brilliant Friend taught me: that we don’t trust our own sense of what we like, or don’t like, or want, or don’t want, half as much as we trust that of our friends.
Back it up – what’s the book about? Written by an Italian author, the novel is set in a working class Naples in the 1960s-ish (I’m guessing a bit on the date). It follows two young girls, Elena and Lila as they mature themselves and in their friendship. Narrated by Elena, the novel focuses on their development from school girls to sexually mature women in the midst of changing social and economic conditions. The novel explores fascinating questions in friendship: how does friendship change when one friend gets married? when one friend has access to (much) more money than another? when one has sex? [I’ll admit that when this description (or something like it) was offered to me in all of these recommendations I thought *yawn* but the books (at least the first) are well worth the read.]
In the particular setting of Naples the significant division between the two friends is access to education. Both Elena and Lila begin in school together, but as they age only Elena’s family has the resources (and sees the value) in continuing to send Elena to school. While both girls achieve extraordinary academic success, Elena views Lila as naturally intellectually curious (Lila teachers herself Greek!) and sees herself as an academic-imposter, succeeding only by virtue of her proximity to Lila.
The extent of Elena’s envy for Lila bothered me (and S.), at least bothered me at first. I assured myself that I’d never harboured such feelings of jealousy for any of my friends… But the more I considered their relationship I saw that in the envy of Lila’s beauty and her intellectual gifts Elena doesn’t desire something she doesn’t also have (Elena’s potentially untrustworthy narrative includes unimpeachable evidence of her academic success in the form of report cards) – rather she desires the confidence she assumes Lila has, she wants to feel like she’s good enough and to believe it.
Putting thematic questions aside, the book has a complex and nuanced narrative voice as this reader struggled to decide whether to trust Elena, or how far to trust her. Having been in my own 13 year old mind, I can assure you it’s not a trustworthy place: perceptions of self are necessarily skewed. The novel manages this narrative tension through balancing Elena’s self-depracting, self-loathing perception against demonstrable outward evidence countering this view. Reminding us of the thematic issue of how much we assume we are (the only) deficient one, or that every one else (*cough* Lila) has their shit together. When… they don’t.
As if to prove it – I was tempted to write “It says something about my reading habits in the last four months that S., who had her first baby in the summer, finished the first book before me.” As if it was a contest about reading. Or friendship. Or life. (but isn’t it?)