So I finally did it. I finally purchased a copy of Elena Ferrante’s first book. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is the kind of book that I never would have picked up on my own. If the 80s-style jacket featuring a beach scene cluttered by three small children, a bride, and groom wasn’t enough to divert my attention, the fact that it was a translated work, surely was. Nevertheless, this novel kept being recommended to me over, and over again. But what actually forced me to commit to my relationship with MY BRILLIANT FRIEND was a conversation with a potential employer–or rather, several potential employers–, as my interviewers kept asking my thoughts on the author.
While I can’t say that I caught Ferrante fever, considering it took me six weeks to get through the 330 pages, and I completed both The Goldfinch and Career of Evil during those same six weeks, I can say that I am amazed at my change of heart over the course of the novel.
Ferrante’s opening lines immediately captures and intrigues the reader, and I was no exception:
“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide, repulsed by the idea that Rino would have anything to do with her body, and be forced to attend to the details. She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her calls to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.”
This one moment sets the pace for the novel, creating a sense of urgency for the reader, which continues through Ferrante’s short scene-like chapters. However, following the very firs scene, there is little action or even dialogue throughout the rest of the novel. Instead, Ferrante takes us deep into her main characters’ childhoods. We meet them where their friendship began and learn of their struggles through puberty as they begin taking on the responsibilities of adulthood in their poor Italian village.
This is where Ferrante lost me. I got bored of reading about the lives of children after about 60 pages, when I realized it wasn’t going to be just a short flash-back. Then, the childish language, though reflective of its content, started to irk me. It felt like the beauty of it, the color, was lost in translation–which is my main issue with many translated texts. Despite these shortcomings, I continued drudging through the slow, overly-expository pages, hoping that I too would learn to love this enormously popular work, but alas, I came to the final chapters still wanting it to end.
But then, just as I thought I was finally finished and wanted nothing to do with Ferrante, something changed. I don’t know how she did it, but by the time I read the final scene:
“’Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,’ Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. ‘Not for you,’ Lila replies ardently, ‘you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls,’”
I found that I had, in fact, created a rapport with poor Elena and Lila. I cared about these characters, I enjoyed them, I still think about them, and I still want to know where Lila goes.
The value in creating a structurally complex narrative that plays upon the way our relationship to others, the world, and ourselves shift and change as we grow–strengthening and renegotiating some connections, while dispersing of others completely–is undeniable. And despite the seeming editorial flaws of the novel, Ferrante’s style is completely her own. What would be labeled as ‘bad writing’ by any other author becomes ‘notable’ and ‘genius’ because of her ability to capture feeling and imbue her text with the tension of youth. At its very least, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is a brilliant commentary on female friendship and identity. And though I will probably put it off until next year, I’ll definitely continue on in search of the truth behind the disappearance of Lila–even if I have to purchase the ebook to avoid another horrendous jacket.