My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

”Ferrante fever” – the term used to describe the sudden rush of desperate adoration and avid reading of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s work – is something I seem to have been swept into without first realising. A colleague’s recommendation and a quote describing her as the ‘Italian Alice Munro’ piqued my interest enough to try My Brilliant Friend; and then I was gone. I raced through the three Neapolitan Novels (the fourth and final installment is expected to be published in English this September) in a dizzying few weeks. In short, this series follows the life of the narrator, Elena, and her friend, Lila, as they navigate adolescence, then adulthood, in a Naples neighbourhood. So far, so standard bildungsroman.

However, finishing Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (the third in the series) left me feeling emotionally bereft – with a strange anxiety over what I could possibly read next. It is difficult to pinpoint quite why these novels are so powerful. There are several other novels I could name (and many more I’ll forget) which follow the basic plot of two girls growing up together – typically one a ‘good girl’, one a ‘bad girl’: Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls. All of these novels are among my favourites, and they are each truly wonderful. Yet I feel Ferrante’s work has a unique, unflinching and often brutal honesty which is truly her own.

Ferrante’s honesty has been lauded by critics in many reviews of her work, indeed often alongside the fact that she is fiercely private. Until The Paris Review releases their highly-anticipated interview with her this spring, she has managed to keep herself completely unknown, with only a handful of written interviews to her (surely a pseudonym) name. There is, then, the idea that it is Ferrante’s anonymity which allows her to be so honest and to write so unselfconciously.

It cannot be denied that the question mark hanging over Ferrante’s identity has played a significant part in this ”Ferrante fever” which has swept across social media and bookshops to such a huge extent. Yet her work would be no less brilliant if we knew who she (or perhaps even he, although I’d be very surprised…) is. The friendship between Elena and Lila only gets richer as the novels continue; their life choices consistently surprise both each other and the reader. Furthermore, the political themes become more pronounced – as Elena begins to understand more about the political landscape of Italy at the time (during the fifties and sixties), its narrative presence becomes stronger. Similarly, when Elena becomes more aware of the feminist movement, it’s importance within the novels is highlighted. In short, the narrative and the reader grow up alongside the characters; in all their confusion, rebellion and complicated relationships. Begin with My Brilliant Friend and you’ll be enthralled until the last word of Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (though then, like me, you’ll be left waiting impatiently, feverishly, for September).

Hannah Oldham – Hatchards Bookseller

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