My Brilliant Friend (Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend  (Neopolitan Novels 1)
Elena Ferrante, 2012 (U.S. ed., 2015)
Europa Editions
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781609450786

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other.

They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a trilogy, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers.

She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction. (From the publisher.)

Books in the series
This is the first of Ferrante's four Neapolitan Novels. The Story of a New Name (2012) is the second, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) is the third, and The Story of a Lost Child (2014) is the last.

Author Bio
Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of an Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known. Though heralded as the most important Italian novelist of her generation, she has kept her identity secret since the publication of her first novel in 1992.

Ferrante is the author of a half dozen novels, the most well-known of which is Days of Abandonment. Her four "Neapolitan Novels" revolve around two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples who try to create lives for themselves within a violent and stultifying culture. The series consists of four novels: My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015), which was nominated for the Strega Prize, an Italian literary award.

Two of Ferrante's novels have been turned into films by Italian filmmakers. Troubling Love  became the 1995 feature film Nasty Love, and The Days of Abandonment became a 2005 film of the same title.

Her nonfiction book Fragments (2003) discussion her experiences as a writer.

In a January 21, 2013, article in The New Yorker, James Woods wrote that Ferrante has said, "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors." Perhaps that is one reason for her pen-name.

Speculation about Ferrante's identity is rife. In the same New Yorker article, Woods also wrote:

In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach. (Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/11/2015.)

Book Reviews
(These reviews refer to the other works in Ferrante's Neapolitan series, not just My Brilliant Friend.)

Elena Ferrante is one of the great novelists of our time. Her voice is passionate, her view sweeping and her gaze basilisk.... In these bold, gorgeous, relentless novels, Ferrante traces the deep connections between the political and the domestic. This is a new version of the way we live now—one we need, one told brilliantly, by a woman. (From a 2014 review of Those Who Stay Those Who Leave)
Roxana Robinson - New York Times Book Review

Everyone should read anything with Ferrante’s name on it. (From a 2012 review of My Brilliant Friend)
Eugenia Williamson - Boston Globe

Compelling, visceral and immediate . . . a riveting examination of power.... The Neapolitan novels are a tour de force. (From a 2014 review of Those Who Leave Those Who Stay)
Jennifer Gilmore - Los Angeles Times

Ferrante writes with a ferocious, intimate urgency that is a celebration of anger. Ferrante is terribly good with anger, a very specific sort of wrath harbored by women, who are so often not allowed to give voice to it. We are angry, a lot of the time, at the position we’re in—whether it’s as wife, daughter, mother, friend—and I can think of no other woman writing who is so swift and gorgeous in this rage, so bracingly fearless in mining fury. (From a 2012 review of My Brilliant Friend)
Susanna Sonnenberg - San Francisco Chronicle

The through-line in all of Ferrante’s investigations, for me, is nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women (not only Neapolitan women), and its implicit j’accuse.... Ferrante’s effect, critics agree, is inarguable. (From a 2013  review of The Story of a New Name.)
Joan Fran - San Francisco Chronicle

Ferrante’s novels are intensely, violently personal, and because of this they seem to dangle bristling key chains of confession before the unsuspecting reader. (From a 2013 overview of Ferrante's works)
James Wood - The New Yorker

One of the more nuanced portraits of feminine friendship in recent memory. (From a 2013 review of My Brilliant Friend)
Megan O’Grady - Vogue

Elena Ferrante may be the best contemporary novelist you’ve never heard of. (From a 2013 review of The Story of a New Name)

When I read [the Neapolitan novels] I find that I never want to stop. I feel vexed by the obstacles—my job, or acquaintances on the subway—that threaten to keep me apart from the books. I mourn separations (a year until the next one—how?). I am propelled by a ravenous will to keep going. (From a 2013 review of the Neapolitan series.)
Molly Fischer - The New Yorker

[Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels] don’t merely offer a teeming vision of working-class Naples, with its cobblers and professors, communists and mobbed-up businessmen, womanizing poets and downtrodden wives; they present one of modern fiction’s richest portraits of a friendship.
John Powers - Fresh Air, NPR

An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends Lila and Elena, Bright and passionate girls from a raucous neighborhood in world-class Naples. Ferrante writes with such aggression  and unnerving psychological insight about the messy complexity of female friendship that the real world can drop away when you’re reading her.
Entertainment Weekly

This is both fascinating—two girls, their families, a neighborhood, and a nation emerging from war and into an economic boom—and occasionally tedious, as day-to-day life can be. But Lila, mercurial, a memorable character. (From a 2012 review of My Brilliant Friend.)
Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions
1. Why is Don Achille such an important character? His presence looms over the whole novel;
what does he represent?

2. Throughout the novel, Lila earns her reputation as "the misfit," while Elena comes to be known as "the good girl." How do the two live vicariously through one another, and what is it about their differing personalities that makes their relationship credible? Which girl, if any, do you most easily identify with?

3. Domestic life in the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s is depicted as conservative, challenging, and at times, even severely violent. Ferrante uses the girls’ early "child play" to emulate the callous undertones of the town. Why is this analogy so successful?  What is so important about Tina and Nu?  

4. Why is Elena so invested in her education? Is it a means to an end, or an end unto itself? If a means to an end, what end? And if a means, is she being realistic or is she fooling herself?

5. What is revealed of the girls’ characters on the day they decide to skip school? Do these discoveries surprise you? How does this effect their relationship (or our sense of their relationship)?

6. Ferrante returns to the theme of  "mother-daughter relationship" in My Brilliant Friend. What are the abiding characteristics of this relationship? Who do you feel suffers the most—mother or daughter? Why? 

7. It can be assumed that Elena’s voice is behind the title of the novel, referring to Lila as "her brilliant friend." However, toward the end of the girls’ story, it is Lila who praises Elena, and encourages her to be "the best of all, boys and girls" (pg. 312). Is this dialogue between the two girls symbolic of Lila’s surrender? Are you surprised by Lila’s words?

8. Lila’s rustic personality and crude comments sometimes come off as hurtful and malicious. Furthermore, although both families struggle with poverty, it is the Cerullos who appear to be the underprivileged of the two. Why, nonetheless, does Elena remain a highly devout friend? What does this say about Elena?

9. What do the shoes that Lila designs and makes represent symbolically? What undertones do the shoes help to evidence in the latter half of the novel?

10. How would the book be different if told from the point of view of Lila or another character? Is Elena's point of view the most appropriate? Why or why not? Explain.

11. Page 282: "Do you love Stefano?" She said seriously, "Very much." "More than your parents, more than Rino?" "More than everyone, but not more than you." Lila’s personality seems to have grown warmer by the end of the novel. What can we attribute this change to?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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