“Nowhere is it written that you can’t do it.” –My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I am currently reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. No one knows precisely who Ferrante is, so closely does she guard her identity. Discussions of her novels are untroubled by what she looks like or sounds like, how she appeared at book signings, what she was wearing. She is a shadowy figure, but one that you feel as if you know as you read, a writer who is good at getting into the middle of emotions and describing them elegantly. And there is plenty of drama. As I am reading, I keep thinking that it is like a working-class, Italian Downton Abbey, rawer, more violent, but careening from one big event to another.
The prologue begins in present day with Lila disappearing without a single trace, not even a hairpin left. Lila’s son, Rino, calls Lenù asking if she has seen her. But she hasn’t. In fact, Lenù has been expecting something like this to happen for a while, and she realizes that Lila has overdone it again, has overachieved by vanishing so fully. Angry at her friend, she decides that if Lila wants to try to disappear then she, Lenù, will simply write about her, write about everything, to make Lila’s existence permanent again.
As children, Lila and Lenù are constantly pushing each other, whether competing at school or daring each other while they are playing. Lenù sees Lila as her brilliant friend, the smartest in the class. Lila can learn new concepts effortlessly, and, when she writes a book at a precocious age, Lenù is half-admiring, half-envious of her friend’s talent. Lenù wants to do everything Lila does. However, as the story progresses, I am starting to question which is the brilliant friend. Lila seems to view Lenù as her brilliant friend as well, someone she can’t keep up with since Lenù will be continuing her studies while Lila’s family won’t allow her to do so. Although the story is told from Lenù’s perspective, it can be inferred that Lila must be jealous of Lenù as well.
Being friends with another person for such a long period of time is difficult. The friendship is based on something you might not even remember (How did you meet, again?), maybe something that is currently not a part of who you are, but you maintain the friendship because of the history. Ferrante is clearly someone who has experienced all of the ups and downs of a lifelong friendship between two women. The men in their lives seem by-the-way in comparison.
Any woman who has been friends with someone for as long as Lila and Lenù can attest to the fact that some days that friend is the most important person to you, sometimes you can’t stand her. Sometimes the relationship becomes fraught with jealousy, but there is still that person, that constant companion, who you know will always be there when you need them. The immediate reason for the friendship seems to have disappeared, but still you need each other. I am enjoying the book so much because it reminds me of how important my friends are in my life.
So far, it has been a brilliant book about brilliant friends, both of them brilliant to each other because of their presence in each other’s lives.