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Likely Stories: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Story of two friends who live on the edge of poverty in Naples.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I have a cast of friends who populate independent bookstores.  These are friends I trust to guide me through obscure novels and open whole worlds of new adventures.  An Inkwood in Tampa, and her sister with the Inkwood in Haddonfield, NJ, have been wonderful resources.  It was a trip to New Jersey that led me to Elena Ferrante and her masterpiece the four “Neapolitan Novels.”  Book One is titled My Brilliant Friend.  I already have the next three lined up for this sprawling, insightful, and fantastic novel.

Elena is a peculiar writer.  She disdains meeting her followers, and she avoids conferences, signings, and most attempts to uncover her real name.  Recently, someone tried by matching her style.  When I started to read the essay, I put it away.  Her story is magnificent, and if she wishes to remain anonymous, I will not be one to reveal her secret.

The story begins with two friends, Elena and Lila.  Both live in Naples with families on the edge of poverty.  Lila appears to be the better student, but she opts into an early marriage giving up her studies.  Elena is envious of Lila, and she struggles to surpass her friend.  Book one of this story carries the tale to the girls’ 16th birthdays.  The friendship of the two girls wavers back and forth.  When Lila decides to marry, she asks Elena for help, much to the consternation of the bride’s family.

Ferrante’s style is detailed and wonderfully adept at describing these characters.  Elena writes, “Lila knew how to read and write, and what I remember of that gray morning when the teacher revealed it to us was, above all, the sense of weakness the news left me with.  Right away, from the first day, school had seemed to me a much nicer place than home.  It was the place in the neighborhood where I felt safest, I went there with excitement.  I paid attention to the lessons, I carried out with the greatest diligence everything I was told to carry out, I learned.  But most of all I liked pleasing the teacher, I liked pleasing everyone.  At home I was my father’s favorite, and my brothers and sister, too, loved me.  The problem was my mother; with her, things never took the right course.  It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.  I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me.  Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking” (44-45).

Having to deal with the parents, friends, and family, while managing her friendship with Lila, was daunting.  Elena’s ability to handle all this requires an amazing array of characters and events.  She did all this while studying her lessons and achieving the highest scores in all her subjects.  A comprehensive set of family trees proved to be quite helpful, especially since there were a few similar names and nicknames.  A number of writers have labeled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend her masterpiece, and I am in complete agreement with that judgment.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.