My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels,07 Feb 2016
It’s taken me a few days to write this review after finishing Elana Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend.” Even while reading the book I didn’t quite know how to think about it. It’s a book about nothing, in the sense that Seinfeld was a show about nothing or in the sense that Flaubert thought of Madame Bovary as the first novel about nothing. There’s not much new in that idea any more, we’ve come to expect novels to dwell in the daily, the mundane, the seemingly unimportant. Ferrante’s addition to this genre, then, is possibly that she writes from the viewpoint of a young Italian woman. In that aim, she hits her mark. Not many exciting, big or entertaining things happen, but we get to learn a lot about the protagonist, her feelings about her youth, her friends and her environment. This is, again, not new. Another contemporary point of comparison could be Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series. While Karl Ove writes about the the life of a white Norwegian man, from Ferrante we get something slightly different. I don’t think it’s altogether misguided to compare these two books.
So, if this premise is to be accepted, that Ferrante is interested not in telling a story, but in introducing a new type of person into this genre, then the question becomes, is she successful in that attempt? My claim is yes, she’s successful, but not to an impressive degree. I found the scenes, the characters, their violence, their contempt, the decisions they were making and the decisions of those around them less than compelling. At multiple times during the book I was left wondering, why do I care about these characters, besides the fact that I’ve just been reading about them for a while? Lila was fascinating at times, but too distant. I was interested in Elana’s inner life, but wanted more big decisions to come her way so I could learn more about her character.
All of this could be sorely misguided because this is, after all, the 1st in a 4 part series. At this time, I don’t think I’ll continue to see where all this goes, however enticing all the critical and popular acclaim might be.