Wednesday 12 September 2018
30 Books Before 30: #1 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (The Neopolitan Novels)
Ah, the Neopolitan Novels. They only really came onto my radar this year when my friend sent me a link to an article Elena Ferrante had written in The Guardian (which I can't find but was very good and feminist), and since I was planning on going to Naples at the time, I was all about finding and reading them. Not long after that, I found the first two novels in a charity shop, which felt weirdly fortuitous, and made the mistake of reading the first two before I owned the last two, which meant that I had to (HAD to) buy the others full price, something which I've hardly done all year! They are just that good.
Since reading them, I've tried to work out exactly why they are so good. On the surface, there is nothing too remarkable about them - they are essentially just a woman's story of her life since childhood, growing up poor in Naples and trying to figure out how to live and who to love and all of those other good things that make up a life. The writing is excellent, which doesn't hurt, but I think its crowning glory might be the fact that it isn't the story of just one woman (Elena, our narrator) but that of her best friend Lila, too, and their childhood and adult lives and their different paths and did you hear the part about their friendship? Because, that.
Because how often do we see that? A friendship, described from beginning to end, with none of the uncomfortable emotions sometimes associated with it left out? Friendships in fiction, especially fiction about women, are so often relegated to the sidelines as the main character finds and then marries some guy, when sometimes in life, friendships can be as important, and sometimes more complex than romantic relationships. I have a best friend who I've known for nearly 11 years (AGH) and I've known my boyfriend for less than 2, and whilst our friendship would make a really boring book (we're not so dramatic) she hasn't lost her importance in my life because I now have a romantic interest - and I think that's true for so many other women too.*
And so, back to these books. Elena and Lila take completely different paths in life- both very intelligent children, Elena is nurtured and given opportunities that Lila is not, but a crucial part of the books is that this doesn't really matter - their relative statuses switch throughout the novels as one becomes richer and the other poorer, but they are always there for each other, seeing each other through crises and each providing what she can when she is able. I don't mean to sugarcoat their friendship because they are both complex and wildly interesting characters, which means that they are not always the best of friends at all, but even their disagreements and fallings out come alive on the page. You care about them both, even when you don't really want to.
You may or may not know that Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and no one knows exactly who she is. I'm not by any means desperate to unmask her, but I so want the characters in the Neopolitan Novels to be real that I have pretty much made her the fictional Elena, given her Lila as her best friend, and given her this truly captivating life that, well shit, I want to believe someone has lived. Childish of me, perhaps, but that's the level to which I loved these books, which I think might always hold a special place in my heart.
*And, I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, but if your friends automatically lose importance when you get a boyfriend, guuuurl what are you doing?