Five Stars For Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

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Though it isn’t featured in my previous Fall Reading List—though I have started The Last Love Song [to disappointing results—I wanted to read about Joan Didion’s life, not analyses of the technicalities of her writing]—My Brilliant Friend should transcend all of my previous recommendations and find a place firmly at the top of your fall book list. Given its location in a town on the outskirts of Naples, and the scenes that take place on the coast by Ischia, it might seem better suited as a summer read; however, the book is so good that you’ll regret waiting until your next vacation to tackle it.

The premise of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend didn’t immediately appeal to me—unlike most of the books on the market today, it’s light on suspense, doesn’t feature an unreliable narrator, and doesn’t end in a crazy cliff-hanger or on a frustratingly open-ended note à la Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. The book is a portrait of the lives of two young girls—Elena (Lenu—the narrator) and Rafaella (Lila), her mischievous but precocious and insightful friend, which spans from their early childhood through—in this book [which is the first of four], the year they turn seventeen.

The story tracks the lives of the girls, their families, and the other children they surround themselves with in a town so poor and reliant on vocational skills that the girls grow up with no knowledge of what high school is until one of them gets asked to attend. Granted, the book takes place in 1958, but only three of the children, out of the group of at least ten profiled in the book attend school past elementary. It’s a fascinating look at a life unimaginable to anyone reading this post on a computer [except maybe my dad and his sisters, who lived in Italy in the 1960s—but even still, they weren’t living like this].

The lack of obvious action is refreshing, and it’s not to say that nothing happens, because there were quite a few events throughout the book that caused me to audibly gasp [those I spent the weekend with can attest to this]—but the best part about them was that—unlike most books these days, ahem, Luckiest Girl Alive— it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that all of these things could’ve happened to one group of friends. At 331 pages, the book isn’t all that short, but I devoured pages at a time on my morning and evening commutes and found I was able to finish it in exactly one week [thanks to football Sunday, during which everyone I’m with is too engrossed in watching the game to notice that I’m paying zero attention to the team and using the time to catch up on my books].

And I haven’t even gotten started on how beautiful the writing is—but that’s for you to discover.

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