25 September 2012

My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

I've been curious about Elena Ferrante for a while--Stephanie, late of WORD, adored her The Days of Abandonment, and y'know I have a publisher-crush on Europa Editions. Abandonment, though, is about a woman's descent into madness after her husband leaves her, and I . . . haven't been up to it. Possibly may never be? My Brilliant Friend, on the other hand, is a painstaking, heartfelt chronicle of female friendship and a portrait of mid-twentieth-century Neapolitan culture--totally my speed.

While I generally liked My Brilliant Friend, I'm having trouble writing about it--its strengths and weakness derive from the same cause, its exhaustive scope. This is book one of a trilogy, told in flashback--so while we know from the outset that Lila, narrator Elena's lifelong friend, has vanished in her sixty-sixth year, we only hear their story from early childhood through the marriage of one in her late teens. Ferrante tells their story not only of their friendship, but their poor Naples neighborhood, and the myriad connections, feuds, and histories of the families surrounding them. She handles the many characters deftly (I was worried I'd have to continually refer back to the cast listing at the beginning of the book, but didn't), and vivid and poignant moments abound. Sometimes I felt bogged down by detail, however.

The Italians in my family background come from Sicily, not Naples, and came to the United States (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, specifically--what shock that change of climate must have been, eh?) several decades before the 1950s where the story begins; but I couldn't help but have the Zaffiros and Serios in the back of my mind, especially when Lila--at the top of her class all through elementary school--isn't allowed to continue her education, while Elena goes on. My great-grandmother Grace left school after eighth grade at her parents' behest despite her longing to go on; her un-studious brother was sent. I'm told it was an injustice she never got over.

FUN FACT: Despite being one of Italy's top literary authors, Elena Ferrante's real name and whereabouts are popularly unknown. Isn't that crazy? MAYBE SHE'S SHAKESPEARE

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