Pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante has written four mega-popular Neopolitan novels that explore the complicated intensity of female friendship. “My Brilliant Friend” is the first in the series, and also the first to be adapted for television.
My Brilliant Friend Summary
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s world-acclaimed quartet of Neapolitan novels, which documents the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. It was originally published in 2011.
Narrated in first person from Elena’s perspective, the novel opens with a present-day Prologue, in which Lila stages the ultimate disappearance. She not only vanishes in body but takes her possessions and cuts out her face from photographs, so as “to eliminate the entire life she had left behind”. My Brilliant Friend!
Elena is indignant and vows to challenge Lila by writing down “all the details” of their shared story.
The body of the novel tells that story in two parts, beginning in an impoverished neighborhood in 1950s Naples where Lila and Elena are the best students in Maestra Oliviero’s class.
The girls develop a dynamic based on mutual respect and competition. Elena considers Lila to be the more clever and daring one; however, in the final elementary school exam, Lila does not live up to her potential, whereas Elena is outstanding. My Brilliant Friend!
This record sets Elena on a course of further schooling, while Lila engages herself in making the perfect men’s shoe for her father’s shop and borrows as many books as she can from the local library to keep pace with Elena.
Elena hits puberty first and experiences it as an awkward state, while Lila, though a late bloomer, appears to make a graceful and stunning transition into womanhood. Elena notices how the “men kept their eyes on [Lila] as if we others had disappeared”.
However, being the prized girl in the neighborhood has its negative side: Lila’s impoverished family pushes her into an engagement with the loathsome but high-status Marcello Solara. Lila is repulsed by Solara’s animalistic brutality and does everything in her power to get him out of her life.
She succeeds when she entertains Stefano Carracci’s attentions and then acquiesces to his marriage proposal. Lila’s engagement to Stefano not only invalidates Marcello’s suit, but the relationship gives her status and external riches. My Brilliant Friend!
While Lila is moving towards an early marriage to the most powerful man in the neighborhood, Elena feels conflicted about her own position. On the one hand, she feels inferior to Lila and wonders if all her studying is a waste of time; on the other, she enjoys learning and hopes her academic achievement will afford her a different kind of life.
Elena has a longstanding crush on the handsome but distant Nino Sarratore; however, her feelings towards him are complicated: Nino’s father, Donato Sarratore, sexually assaults Elena when she is 15 years old. In an attempt to keep up with Lila’s romantic life, Elena procures a neighborhood boy, Antonio Cappuccio, as her boyfriend. My Brilliant Friend!
While Antonio satisfies her sexual curiosity and makes her feel grown up, she does not love him and vows to break up with him.
When Nino asks Elena to submit an article to a journal based on an argument she engages in with her religion teacher, Elena jumps at the chance to impress him and enlists Lila as editor.
At Lila’s wedding, however, Nino reveals that Elena’s article was not published in the journal. She feels despondent and worries that she will never get out of the neighborhood and that her fate will be no better than her mother’s.
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About the Author
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist. Ferrante’s books, originally published in Italian, have been translated into many languages. Her four-book series of Neapolitan Novels are her most widely known works. Time magazine called Ferrante one of the 100 most influential people in 2016.