Theresa Smith Writes

Delighting in all things bookish, book review: my brilliant friend by elena ferrante, my brilliant friend….

Translated by Ann Goldstein

About the Book:

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

My Brilliant Friend is the gripping first volume in Elena Ferrante’s widely acclaimed Neapolitan Novels. This exquisitely written quartet creates an unsentimental portrait of female experience, rivalry and friendship never before seen in literature.

The story of Elena and Lila begins in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. They learn to rely on each other and discover that their destinies are bound up in the intensity of their relationship.

Elena Ferrante’s piercingly honest portrait of two girls’ path into womanhood is also the story of a nation and a meditation on the nature of friendship itself.

My Brilliant Friend is a modern masterpiece, the work of one of Italy’s great storytellers.

My Thoughts:

I’m very late to the party on this one, although I have had a copy of this on my eBook shelf for a few years after reading an article on the series, I think, before the fourth book came out. Anyway, better late than never! As is my way of late, I’ve taken to watching before reading – I know! The horror, breaking the golden reading rule. I find though that this avoids that whole ‘it wasn’t as good as the book’ mentality. If it’s good to watch, it’ll be even better to read (usually) and pretty much so far this has been working out for me. So, I watched My Brilliant Friend (over two days) and as far as a TV series goes, that gets five stars. It was exceptional and I loved that it was Italian. I picked up the book straight away and read it in a day (very, very late into the night). I was immediately struck by how the TV series was almost exactly like the book, with a few chronological exceptions, and that hardly ever happens. Ferrante was one of the writers and maybe in Italy you have more say over what happens when your book is adapted than in America, Australia or the UK. Or maybe it’s just a perfect story that needed no extra handling. The emotional intensity of the story translated well onto the screen and the faithfulness to the novel must surely be a bonus to all fans. At least we don’t have to do a book versus the show comparison now. Moving right on.

I wish I could read Italian. The translation is excellent, don’t get me wrong, but when it came to the dialogue, I have this feeling that it would have had a whole other layer of emotional depth in its original Italian. This was evidenced within the show. At times, you could imagine that if people had been shouting those same words in English, the effect would not have been the same. But this is a minor quibble, thank goodness for the translation, allowing the rest of the world outside of Italy to enjoy this wonderful novel.

Elena Ferrante is some writer. This is more than a novel about friendship. The era in which she set the story plays just as much of a role in the telling as the characters. Italy’s turbulent history is evidenced within the very fabric of these characters, the community, and the codes they lived by. My Brilliant Friend is a coming of age novel not just for two girls, but for a nation, who had, in a relatively short amount of time, experienced extreme political turbulence under multiple political regimes, civil war, and two world wars. The characters wear this, they struggle with it, the younger generation want to break free from the fear and ways of the older generation. I absolutely love novels that explore society at such an intimate level like this. And it’s a tough read, at times. The normalised violence is shocking, particularly against children. The oppression is all encompassing, the lack of agency over ones own life, not just women and children, but men too. This is a community run by the Camorra, which is not fictional. It’s an Italian Mafia-type crime syndicate which arose in the region of Campania and its capital Naples and is one of the oldest and largest criminal organizations in Italy, dating back to the 17th century. The stranglehold the Solara family, and the Carracci family before them, had on the community was no exaggeration. The way Ferrante articulated that intergenerational fear was so telling in how a community can remain in a cycle of oppression and forced compliance. This was demonstrated over and over throughout the novel but perhaps the most powerful symbol of it was evidenced in that ending: the inevitable appearance at the wedding of the unwanted guest and those shoes, a forceful statement of exactly where and with whom the power lies. For a sociologist with a long-term interest in Italy’s history, this novel is a gold class case study.

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

Now, let’s talk about that friendship. While I was watching the show, I thought I just didn’t like the actress playing the teenaged Elena, but having now read the book, I realise that the actress was playing her role to perfection. It’s Elena I don’t like. For such a smart young woman, she is almost entirely devoid of emotional intelligence. She misreads every situation and ascribes her own bitter discontent onto all those around her. She is of course the product of her mother’s fears and anger, manifested into a childhood anxiety that grips her and increases in severity throughout her teenage years, again, demonstrating to us how cycles are perpetuated, Elena’s fractured only by the tenacity of a teacher not willing to see another woman wasted. But it’s in Elena’s friendship with Lila that I liked her the least. She was, I felt, disingenuous, too slated with envy and suspicion, unable to love without it always being tinged with hate. I tired of her, particularly as they got older and maturity should have been setting in. Elena was entirely incapable of considering any part of her life separate from Lila, but in a toxic comparative way. Did Ferrante miss the beat with Elena and overplay the whining and apathy? I don’t think so. We all know Lila should have had the educational opportunities that Elena received, but while Elena’s father had a job as a porter at the city hall, Lila’s was a struggling shoe maker. Neither family had much money but the job held by Elena’s father meant that he saw education in action on a daily basis, whereas for Lila’s father, it was unnecessary, an unwanted expense and a possible danger to the order of his household. Much like Elena’s mother’s view, but she was overruled by her husband. Lila, unable to go to school, taught herself. I don’t believe, if the situations were reversed, that Elena would have done that. Elena’s inferiority complex was too great and she’d never have had the will to overcome her anxieties and apply herself under her own steam. She was too much about the external gratification. It was in this jealous way that Elena begrudged Lila her independent learning and intelligence that Elena was at her worst. I hope Elena grows in maturity and emotional complexity over the next three books.

I adored Lila. She was ferocious, her own woman, trying her hardest within the limited confines of her life to go her own way. Marcello’s interest in her was frightening. I do believe he loved her, obsessively though. I don’t believe that she escaped his interest by marrying another man. In a society driven by retribution, she humiliated him too much for that, hence, the ending and that bold statement made by Marcello. Lila’s beauty came not only from her looks but from the fire within her, that dangerous mix that Alfonso pointed out to Elena. I feared for Lila for the entirety of the novel, and if it wasn’t for the fact that the beginning of the story introduces both of the women in their sixties, I felt certain on many occasions that Lila walked a fine line between life and death.

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

No story that rests on the shoulders of a community can exist without the creation of a colourful community. I loved the vast cast of characters within this story and I thought Ferrante distinguished each person enough for her readers to not lose track of who was who. There was a helpful cast list in the front of the book but I didn’t need to refer to it once I’d started. I think out of everyone, my favourite was Maestra Oliviero, a woman who was tirelessly teaching the girls at the elementary level in the hopes that she might rescue, through education, at least one of them and set them free from their plebeian existence. I haven’t mentioned Donato Sarratore and his presence within Melina’s life and later Elena’s. What a snake. I saw the writing on that wall right from the get go. I don’t think his son, Nino, was quite worth the mental and emotional energy Elena expended on him. I feel that he was a young man who closed himself off long ago as a precautionary measure against his father’s repeated misconduct. A complex young man, but devoid of any real emotional capability. Elena alludes to Lila’s panic attacks (not that they were called that back then) and Rino’s bouts of depression that would lead to sleep walking. We see through these conditions, as well as Melina’s mental illness, how people struggled, reliant on empathy and the protection of those around them. With Melina in particular, the community protected her, shielded her, did everything they could to keep her free of an asylum. This community had many characteristics defining it, but not all of them were negative, not by a long shot.

My Brilliant Friend is a five-star read for me, not just for the story and characters, but also for the thought provoking nature of the text. It’s a stimulating and lively novel and I could see at a glance on Goodreads that it’s one of those love it or hate it novels. This reader loved it and I highly recommend the TV series as well.

About the Author:

Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is the author of seven novels: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, and the quartet of Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. She is one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors.

My Brilliant Friend trailer:

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

My Brilliant Friend Published by Text Publishing October 2011

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43 thoughts on “ book review: my brilliant friend by elena ferrante ”.

We will have to agree to disagree on this one 🙂 I read the first three books (don’t ask me why I kept going given that I wasn’t loving them, but it’s the completist in me) before watching the tv series. I LOVED the tv series – it gave the story a warmth and depth I didn’t get from the books. Did you have the cast and sets in mind as you read?

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Yes, I did, and I think that enhanced my enjoyment of the book, picturing it as I’d just watched it. However, as you’ll see in tomorrow’s review, I didn’t like book 2. This is a one hit wonder for me. I’ll watch season 2 of the series, fingers crossed I like that more than the book.

Do you know when S2 is on?

It’s supposed to be in the US in April. No idea about here.

I watched both seasons in 6 days, so good I loved it and read the first one and now reading the second “the story of a new name”, the series is brilliant, the novels maybe aren’t as captivating since to me there was a lot of decorative sentences or maybe I have thought so (I read it in Arabic) but watched an English subtitled series, and those details or sentences were not as detailed in the series..The cast was definitely brilliant and their performance felt so real.. I definitely recommend both the series and the novels.

I think I will return to read book 3 and 4 at some stage. I’m very keen to watch season 2, just waiting for access to it.

I just wrote a long response to this and it got lost in the ether! So here’s a briefer one. I love your review. It shows a very good grasp of a complex story with a host of characters. I’ve almost finished watching the TV adaptation, and it is brilliant in every way. It brought the book to life for me, especially the background characters, whom I found it hard to keep track of in the books. I like Elena… she is insecure, jealous, bitter, but she touches me because of her desire to be different, her self-hatred, which I think springs from her relationship with her mother. Her friendship with Lila is like a love affair, more intense and deep-rooted than any of their relationships with men. The two girls emerge like beautiful, fragile but tough flowers out of the boiling cauldron of the streets of Naples, and struggle to define themselves and escape from that bitter birthing. They do this through their support for each other (torn as it is by jealousy and by their affairs with men) and their intelligence. Lenu doesn’t have Lila’s brilliance, but she has tenacity, courage and ambition. As you say, it is a wonderful portrait of the emergence of a nation from war, oppression, starvation, and of a violent, patriarchal society. The stories of the women and of their desire to be different shine against this dark, fractured background. A feminist diamond. Thank you, Ferrante, whoever you are.

I’m looking forward to series two, I saw a preview online and it got me all excited. I have read book 2 (review up tomorrow), but for me, book 1 is a one hit wonder. I didn’t enjoy book 2 at all and have given up on the series. But I did love this one and I may read more Ferrante in the future. She really can write!

Ah, I don’t really remember book 2. I’m sure the film of it will be good though. i think book 1 was what got me in, and after that I just kept reading to find out what happened. But it’s true, the adults are less interesting than the children, because they’ve lost their innocence, which makes them stand out in such bright relief against the dark streets and the dark struggles of the families.

I found Lena intolerable in book 2 and I couldn’t see her improving. Perhaps it’s not a series you can read back to back? The politics of Italy that’s supposed to be in the third book appeal to me but the thought of being in Lena’s head again was too much!

Do not give up on the series, season 2 is really good and I cannot wait for season 3 and maybe 4 too

I do really want to keep watching but so far, season 2 is not available where I am. I keep looking out for it though.

I like it when a reader comes ‘late to the party’ because it gives us a chance to revisit a book we really enjoyed. I read this one when it came out: it was well-hyped by the publisher because it was the first of the Ferrante novels in English, and I enjoyed it. But my enthusiasm faded. I liked the second one, so much so that I stupidly bought a fourth one before I’d read the third and ended up sending both unread to the OpShop because I abandoned the the fourth one. I was well-and-truly over Ferrante Fever!

I almost bought all four novels at once after finishing the TV series, but thankfully elected to buy them one by one as ebooks. A sound decision! Have you read others by Ferrante, out of this series?

I’ve read My Brilliant Friend, (L’amica geniale #1) and from The Neapolitan Novels: #2, The Story of a New Name, abandoned $4 The Story of the Lost Child and chucked out #3 Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I thought they were all the same series, but Goodreads as #1 as a different series.

I’m not sure if Goodreads has that right. Text Publishing has the four as the Neopolitan Novels. I find Goodreads a bit dodgy sometimes with their categories.

I can fix it, I think, as long as you’re sure about it. (I’m a ‘librarian’ at GR). Is what’s a Wikipedia right?

Yes, that’s correct. Text Publishing has them listed as a four part series and I’ve also seen the same info where I bought my ebooks and on Booktopia, as well as in a few articles about Ferrante and the TV series.

I read the first book a few years ago but haven’t been inspired to pick up the next one yet. I did think about watching the series whilst on a long haul flight but decided the screen wasn’t big enough to have to read subtitles!

Ha! Yes, you want to be able to see those subtitles! 😁

We differ on this series, because I love them all, even when the characters were frustrating the heck out of me. I 5-starred them all. I didn’t bother to review them, because I was late to the party even a few years ago, haha. I did record the series when it aired on Foxtel but ended up deleting it in an attempt to clean up the HDD which is crammed with things I d/l or record and then never watch.

It’s really worth watching if you can get it.

I’m honestly not great with subtitles, because I tend to multitask when watching tv but I will have to try and give it a go

The series was awesome, I hope you get to watch it sometime. How could you stand Lena across four books? 🤷‍♀️😂

It was so compelling, everyone annoyed me at various times I guess but I still couldn’t put them down.

This is one I have been meaning to re-visit! I have only read the first novel, and not long after if first came out in Aust. At the time, I very much wanted to succumb to Ferrante fever but I didn’t, and I suspect (as I often do) it depends on the timing of the read. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right head space at that time to appreciate it, because I really wanted to! Thematically it sounds very much to my taste. I am going to pull this out of my bookshelf and put it back on my TBR. Thank you! xo

(As an aside, I also hugely admire Ferrante’s ability to remain anonymous, and let the work stand solely on its own merit. I think in our celebrity culture that is a feat indeed!)

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I agree, the anonymity is something I really admire. It makes it all about her work, and I love that. I was all prepared to succumb to Ferrante fever but book 2 put a stop to that – stay tuned tomorrow!

Hi Theresa, I’m afraid I’m a little late to the party on this one too – the first book is still sitting on my book shelf, but I really enjoyed reading your review. I liked your take on watching a screen adaptation before reading the original text. Often a good adaptation can introduce new readers to a text, and besides, the vast majority of movies are based on books, whether we know it or not.

I’m finding more and more that I have a preference for watching first and reading second. The book always enriches the viewing as opposed to feeling that let down of the film/show not living up to the book.

Well, I was being a bit ambitious suggesting that I could fix the muddle at Goodreads. There are different levels of ‘librarian’ status at GR and I am at the most lowly. So I can add a series, or I can add a new book to a series, but when someone has stuffed up so that one of the books is named as in the series by its Italian name, L’amica geniale, and the other three are named under the English series title The Neapolitan Novels, it takes a Super Librarian to fix it up! So I have put in a request for someone to attend to it.

A super librarian! I hope someone can correct it then. Thanks!

PS I’ve had a reply. The series (I should have realised this) is published in multiple translations, so there are multiple titles of the same book in the same series, also named in multiple languages. The way GR works is that the title that is shelved the most (not reviewed or liked the most) is the one that is displayed, and will show up in whatever language that is. So it’s not ‘fixable’.

Ahhh! That actually explains why, despite reviewing a certain edition of a book, a completely different one might be on my read shelf. With that Daisy Jones and the Six, I have the audio book on my shelf despite reviewing the actual book with a different cover.

And why sometimes if you’re looking for a book by an author who writes in Arabic, Hindi or Chinese, you cannot find what you are looking for because the title is written in script!

That’s very annoying!

Wow, what a review! So glad this one worked for you on so many levels!

Thank you xo

Oh, I’m so, SO glad that you’ve read and reviewed this – one of my absolute favourites, and this review is perfection 👌👌❤️

Thank you! ❤ Now, did you just read the first one or did you keep reading the series?

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Not sure how I got to page 98. So boring. I’m sure there must be more interesting kids in the world. Terrie book. Waste of time and money. I believed the hype and went out and bought it. What’s all the fuss about? 👎

It’s always a shame to feel as though you’ve wasted money on a book. I felt the same about Daisy Jones and the Six. I still don’t understand the hype!

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The Sweet Linearity of “My Brilliant Friend”

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

By Emily Nussbaum

Illustration of two young girls

In one of the loveliest sequences in Elena Ferrante’s novel “ My Brilliant Friend ,” two girls read “ Little Women .” But Elena and Lila don’t merely read the book together. They recite it, they memorize it. They fantasize about emulating Jo March, who escaped poverty by writing. They wreck it with their love: “We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.”

This sequence is a delight in the TV adaptation, too, which is currently airing on HBO. On a bench in their grungy, violent Naples neighborhood, Elena and Lila lounge, bodies entwined, wearing shabby dresses, reading in unison, in Italian. (The show has English subtitles.) Excitedly, Lila recites a passage in which Jo herself reads out loud, from her first published short story, to her sisters, without telling them who wrote it. At the passage’s climax, when Jo reveals herself as the author, the two girls read Jo’s words together, their faces shining, as Lila pounds her chest: “ Vostra sorella!  ” (“Your sister!”) It’s a thrilling moment, which threw me back to the wild vulnerability of childhood reading. The scene is dramatic, or maybe just specific and sensual, in a way that the version on the page can’t be, and really doesn’t try to be. There’s no dialogue in the book, no chest-pounding, no description of the girls’ clothes, and no quotes from “Little Women.” Ferrante’s book confides more than it describes—that’s both its technique and its insinuating power.

A few years ago, every discussion of television seemed to be framed as “Is TV the New Novel?” It was a rivalry poisonous to both parties, not unlike the one between Lila and Elena, the top girls in their class. Not that I don’t get it: in the past two decades, technological advances have altered television in a way similar to how the modern novel—which began as an episodic, serialized, disposable medium, derided for its addictive qualities—emerged as a respected artistic phenomenon. With whole seasons released at once, a television series is now a text to be analyzed. There’s a TV-writing class at the University of Iowa. The anxiety is palpable, on both sides. What kind of art do intelligent people talk about? What do they binge on, late at night? Which art form is capable of the most originality, the greater depth, the wider influence—and which one makes you rich? (Would Jo be a showrunner?) It’s enough to make you crave a broader conversation, with respect for the strengths of each art, an interplay that’s more than a simple hierarchy.

The fact is, as beautiful as the scene in the show is, it never captures (and, notably, doesn’t try to capture) the eerie meta quality of the source, its self-conscious textuality—Ferrante’s fluid, ticklish bookishness , that sense of a voice in our ear. In the book, we are aware at all times that we are reading a novel written by Elena—and we also know that, outside this frame, we are reading a book by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, an author who, like Jo, conceals her identity. That wobbly frame of authorship, and the nagging anxiety about who gets to tell the story, is what drives Ferrante’s four-volume series, known as the Neapolitan novels (“My Brilliant Friend” is the first), about two working-class girls, one of whom turns the other into a book. It’s no wonder that a cult following has emerged in the U.S., driven by bookish, Jo-ish, Elena-like, author-worshipping women, giving the books a reputation that has sometimes reduced them to a universalizing primer on female friendship. This mood has been intensified by Ferrante’s own Banksy-level mystique.

In the book “My Brilliant Friend,” Elena, the teacher’s pet, sees the exceptional Lila as not merely her competition but also her role model, her mirror, and, eventually, her subject. From Elena’s perspective, her own “goodness,” the passive-aggressive repression of the grade grind, comes alive only when it is placed next to Lila’s fiery, feral, at times malevolent creative genius. In adolescence, the two part ways: Elena stays in school, Lila drops out. “My Brilliant Friend” is a story about many things—left-wing politics, male violence, fancy shoes, the warping force of patriarchy on female creativity—but it’s centrally about class-jumping, through education, the kind that makes one aware of the origins of social class, including the ways it’s embedded in art.

I watched the show before reading the book. That seemed like the best way for a television critic to approach a television production, anyway—to take the work at face value. Seen this way, the show was uncomplicatedly enjoyable. Gorgeously lit, dreamily paced, “My Brilliant Friend” is directed by Saverio Costanzo, who collaborated, via e-mail, with Ferrante. (She had selected him for the task.) It captures, with a certain gloom and grit, the claustrophobia of Ferrante’s postwar Naples, but it also has the polish of certain well-funded historical portraits of poverty, an unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable side effect of cinematic beauty. The music is too much, manipulative and poncey. But, over all, the show is immersive and astonishingly well cast, fuelled by the joy of gazing into the eyes of the actors who play Elena and Lila—Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, as children, and Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace, as teen-agers—inexperienced performers whose spontaneity feels liberating. These pleasures (beautiful people, sunlight, historical voyeurism) might sound superficial, but they are pleasures anyway.

After I read the book, it was clear how closely the adaptation follows its track. The most exciting sequences—the fairy-tale-like trading of the girls’ dolls; a long, near-hallucinogenic walk out of town; the bullying boys who woo the teen-age Lila—are dramatized without being aggressively transformed. Some critics have called the show dutiful, with the implication that it is not especially interesting as art. And maybe that’s fair. Costanzo doesn’t blow the story open or reshape it. He also doesn’t find a visual rhetoric that’s analogous to Elena’s nose-tugging narrative, with its air of nerdish obsession and banked fury—as opposed to, for example, the way that “ The Wolf of Wall Street ” felt distorted to reflect its narrator’s mania, or Jennifer Fox’s “ The Tale ,” another story in which a woman examines her painful childhood, made theatrical the clash of past and present.

Instead, the show takes an old-fashioned approach, by sublimating itself to its literary source, like a caring translator who will illuminate but won’t impose. And putting events on film does bring out fresh angles. Among other things, the violence feels different. In the book, Elena describes, with dark wit, a child’s-eye awareness of impending death everywhere: “Being hit with a stone could do it, and throwing stones was the norm.” Men beat their families, by default. (If they don’t beat their kids, their wives nag them to do so.) Thuggish businessmen pummel their competitors. Lila gets thrown out a window, breaking her arm, for wanting to attend middle school. On film, these scenes feel scarier. This is not just because it’s harder to see bodies get hurt than to read about it; it’s also that, rather than just seeing torsos kicked, we linger on the faces of bystanders, who are often children looking on in genuine terror. The book is a meditation on the intellectual outcomes of childhood trauma, an unfolding map of minds changing; the show, so focussed on the body, feels as if it were happening now.

Because the story feels less abstract, it also feels in conversation with certain other television dramas about brilliant girls from smothering villages, set in communities where male violence is no more notable than bad weather. These include “ Top of the Lake ,” by Jane Campion, which was set in an isolated New Zealand town; “ Sharp Objects ,” set in a Missouri town full of batshit Southern belles; and the excellent “ Happy Valley ,” set in the depressed Yorkshire countryside. In each of these stories, smart women suffer a sort of cultural amnesia about the ugly past—about sexual violence, especially—in order to keep the world stable. “My Brilliant Friend” is often at its best when it invokes this same crisis of knowledge, of growing up where everyone knows your business and no one can admit the truth. It’s about the escape hatch that clever girls squeeze through, simply by refusing to forget. ♦

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Review: My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant FRiend

My reading list is something of a haphazard pile. Made up of reading recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers it’s often a classic-heavy collection made up of titles I’ve jotted down on my phone with little or no recollection of where or why they’re there, to books I bought a number of years ago but haven’t yet got around to reading. Suffice to say it’s ever growing and expanding at a rate over which I have little control. Because of this, it often means I miss the newest releases that everyone’s talking about; indeed I almost never read A Little Life, despite having been sent a proof before it was published, and only got around to do so after being given a second copy as a birthday present.

And so it would have been, that I might never have got around to reading My Brilliant Friend, were it not for the fact that a rather brilliant friend of mine bought me a copy shortly before I flew back to the UK. It was only after receiving said copy that I suddenly realised how many book bloggers and reading aficionados alike were raving about Elena Ferrante’s  Neapolitan novels, and soon after returning to Sydney, I began her widely acclaimed fourth book.

Born in Naples, prior to writing her widely acclaimed Neapolitan novels – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of  a Lost Child – Ferrante was the author of three books and is one of Italy’s best loved writer. Translated by Ann Goldstein, My Brilliant Friend is set in 1950s Naples and tells the tale of friends Elena and Lina as they blossom from children into young adolescents and beyond. Ferrante brilliantly captures the subtleties of female friendships and introduces a colourful cast of characters that inhabit the poor Neapolitan suburb in which it’s set add a richness and vividity to the tale. Essentially a coming-of-age novel, My Brilliant Friend is a raw and beautifully written novel, abundant in simplicity that offers its readers a social observation of what life in 1950s Naples was like. Engaging from the get-go, it’s easy to see why My Brilliant Friend has won its author a legion of fans, eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

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My Brilliant Friend: A Novel (Neapolitan Novels, 1)

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Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend: A Novel (Neapolitan Novels, 1) Paperback – September 25, 2012

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Now an HBO series: the first volume in the New York Times –bestselling “enduring masterpiece” about a lifelong friendship between two women from Naples ( The Atlantic ). Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Elena Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost sixty years, as its main characters, the fiery and unforgettable Lila and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflicted friendship. This first novel in the series follows Lila and Elena from their fateful meeting as ten-year-olds through their school years and adolescence. 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 two women. “An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends.” ― Entertainment Weekly “Spectacular.” ―Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air “Captivating.” ― The New Yorker

  • Book 1 of 4 Neapolitan Novels
  • Print length 331 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Europa Editions
  • Publication date September 25, 2012
  • Dimensions 5.34 x 0.97 x 8.22 inches
  • ISBN-10 1609450787
  • ISBN-13 978-1609450786
  • See all details

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Spain "Elena Ferrante's female characters are genuine works of art . . . It is clear that her novel is the child of Italian neorealism and an abiding fascination with scene." -- El Pais

About the Author

Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), which was made into a film directed by Roberto Faenza, Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), adapted by Mario Martone, and The Lost Daughter (Europa, 2008), soon to be a film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She is also the author of Incidental Inventions (Europa, 2019), illustrated by Andrea Ucini, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (Europa, 2016) and a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night (Europa, 2016). The four volumes known as the “Neapolitan quartet” ( My Brilliant Friend , The Story of a New Name , Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay , and The Story of the Lost Child ) were published by Europa Editions in English between 2012 and 2015. My Brilliant Friend , the HBO series directed by Saverio Costanzo, premiered in 2018.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Europa Editions; First Edition (September 25, 2012)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 331 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1609450787
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1609450786
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 3.53 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.34 x 0.97 x 8.22 inches
  • #445 in Coming of Age Fiction (Books)
  • #832 in Women's Domestic Life Fiction
  • #1,535 in Literary Fiction (Books)

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Book One of a memorable quartet

Nicholas Hoare

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

About the author

Elena ferrante.

Elena Ferrante is the author of seven novels, including four New York Times bestsellers; The Beach at Night, an illustrated book for children; and, Frantumaglia, a collection of letters, literary essays, and interviews. Her fiction has been translated into over forty languages and been shortlisted for the MAN Booker International Prize. In 2016 she was named one of TIME’s most influential people of the year and the New York Times has described her as “one of the great novelists of our time.” Ferrante was born in Naples.

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My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante Book Review

My Brilliant Friend Elena Ferrante Book Review Women In Translation Italian

I loved My Brilliant Friend, it’s so beautifully written. The story telling feels like it’s from the heart without a care for what is expected. It feels like Ferrante is just telling a story how she wants to- that is to include all the elements she cares about. Women, society, intellect, class, relationships. Elena and Lila are coming into knowledge of the world with a compelling eagerness to learn. It’s unusual and refreshing! Intellect isn’t usually a focus in stories revolving around adolescents, especially not girls. 

My Brilliant friend is the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels . It’s based around the friendship dynamics of two girls growing up in a working class Italian town in the ’50s. Coming of age? Yes- but it is also really telling the story of a community. Im a fan of stories that chart the evolution of families and generations. It feels organic- clear that it wasn’t originally written in English. The rhythms are different, syntax is different. Also Noticed it while reading So Long A Letter and People From My Neighbourhood .  I will definitely be adding more translated texts to my TBR

Female Friendships and Influence

I’ve never read anything like it before, it’s extremely introspective. Very dramatic. Elena is taking us through the dynamics of their friendship from her perspective. Through Elena’s  eyes, their friendship is all consuming, sub consciously veering into all aspects of their lives and decisions. I’ve never read story in which the protagonist’s every move or decision is unintentionally(?) influenced by someone else. To the point where you wonder if the protagonist is really the person whose perspective we are not hearing.

I loved that Elena and Lila spur each other’s curiosity on. Elena is more introverted, cautious, eager to impress her friend. Lila is more confident, fiercely intelligent, charismatic, Alpha B from birth- It would appear. Lila effortlessly influences or enchants everyone who falls into her path . She isn’t a typical nice girl- she does what she wants. I like imperfect characters, although their relationship seemed worrying at times. If they were 30, we would call it toxic.  Ferrante presents Elena as being in awe of Lila but I think they are b oth in awe of each other. Both in fear of not matching up- true to adolescent anxiety. I like that what binds them is a desire to know more about the world around them- knives sharpening knives.

Being life long friends with someone so enigmatic seems extremely tiring. Invigorating, stimulating but….TIRING. What is interesting is that it is clear at a point that Lila thinks just as highly of Elena. Who then, is the Brilliant Friend? What would the book sound like from the other end? If Lila had written it instead?

Does brilliance belong at home?

I’ve never read anything where all the young people were so self aware. So aware of where they stand in society. So aware of what they need to do to ascend. Who they need to love, to ascend. So aware of what is and isn’t permitted of someone of their class. The same goes for gender – both girls seem very aware of what is expected of young women- sometimes they fall in line, sometimes they are very happy to subvert the norm. My Brilliant Friend throws a light on the misogyny that can easily become accepted within small communities. You wonder how either girl became so brilliant in these surroundings. It’s clear that they a force destined to move beyond their restrictive, traditional boundaries. Do they belong there?

There is a romance and urgency throughout. Oh and that ending! Ferrante might get me reading the series which is something I never do! I haven’t read a series since Tracey Beaker or Naughts and Crosses! Don’t know if i should risk watching the HBO series!

I didn’t expect to read this and love it but I did. I can now see why people keep talking about it. 

I listened to a lot of this as an audio book . The narration by Hillary Huber was excellent. Try and forget the American accent.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Published 2020 by Europa Editions . Translated by Ann Goldstein First published 2012

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My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. Inside the front cover, there are three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times , to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian , to the best (and most creative): “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one”, from the LA Times . Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language, and not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.

I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard ! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day, which is incredible given that we live in the digital age and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016!

We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?

Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights , and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes!

The prologue sets up the premise of the whole Neapolitan quartet: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!

(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)

Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.

Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying . So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…

Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…

Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…

… and that’s where it ends!

It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops ! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book ( The Story Of A New Name ) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on my reading list before I can add any new ones! Gah!

I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.

Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time , the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës . Get in early, and read it now!

Update: I’m continuing on with the Neapolitan Quartet! Read my full review of the next book, The Story Of A New Name, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

  • “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
  • “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
  • “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
  • “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
  • “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.

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December 11, 2018 at 9:26 AM

Super commentary on this book. I have heard such good things out it and about Ferrente. I seem to gravitate towards long and complex novels so this sounds right up my alley. Based upon the single novel comment I would probably try to read all the books straight through.

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December 11, 2018 at 9:27 AM

Yes, Brian! You’d love it, and I definitely recommend reading them all back-to-back. I’m kicking myself I didn’t set it up to do it that way. My husband did, and he loveddddd it.

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December 11, 2018 at 4:22 PM

Great review! It’s so wonderful to discover a book for your “best ever” list. I didn’t actually love this one as much as you did, though I was intrigued enough to pick up the second book. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s sitting on my shelf. I love complicated friendship tales, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

December 11, 2018 at 5:02 PM

I feel like there’s a magic tingle – you know when you’re just a few pages in that this is one of THE BOOKS. I’ll be reading all three of the other Neapolitan novels when I start the next list, so stay tuned. We might end up reading The Story Of A New Name together! 😂❤️

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December 12, 2018 at 2:44 PM

Did you know these books are coming to the small screen soon in the form of an Italian TV series? Brilliant review!

December 12, 2018 at 2:54 PM

Yes!! Through HBO, if I remember correctly?? I watched the trailer not long ago. I’m a teensy bit apprehensive about it (always the worry that the screen adaptation can’t possibly be as good), but I love that they’ve kept it in the original Italian. And thank you! 😉❤️

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December 12, 2018 at 9:06 PM

sounds like one to watch then, ok well if on TV I may catch it

December 13, 2018 at 10:27 AM

The adaptation should be coming out sometime next year, Phil, and I’d imagine it’ll be hard to miss! And the trailers are up on YouTube now if you want to get a taste of it…

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December 16, 2018 at 12:51 PM

This review is incredibly insightful: I read (listened to) My Brilliant Friend long ago. I am wondering how much of the story I truly missed because I listened to it, and also because I despised my job. It’s really hard to listen to a story fully when you are sitting in 2 hours of traffic knowing that your bitch ass boss is still going to ream you out even though you work a hundred hours a week, including all the unpaid crap from home. I mean the highway SHUT DOWN for cripes sake. But I digress. I didn’t dislike the book as much as others reviewed. I saw the point, thought the story was well-written, definitely agree with others on the dryness, but I missed the edge that you fell in love with. Maybe I’ll have to give the rest a go.

December 17, 2018 at 8:21 AM

You know, I think I felt very similarly about Wuthering Heights – I had so much of my own stuff going on when I read it that to me it seemed, y’know, fine, but I wasn’t captured by it. I couldn’t see the “magic” that everyone else could. I’m planning to go back and read it again at some stage, to see if I get more out of it when I’m in a better place ❤️ (and your boss sounds like a right arse, hugs!)

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Book Review My Brilliant Friend Elena Ferrante

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

November 15, 2016 By Jessica Filed Under: Book Review 1 Comment

My Brilliant Friend

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.

I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend  and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??

Since the plot is a mess, that leaves me to believe that this is a character driven story. There’s nothing wrong with character driven stories. That being said, I didn’t like any of these characters. Actually it was more that I didn’t care about any of them because I didn’t feel like I could really understand or relate to any of them.

Mostly I was just bored reading this. It felt like an old man was rambling on all these stories from the past that were pointless and didn’t have much connection to each other besides being in the past. The rambling feeling might have come from the fact that there was not much dialogue. Here’s an example of the narration style:

“That morning of the duel between Enzo and Lila is important, in our long story.” – Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (kindle location 543 or 13%)


My last note in the margin of the book says this after the final sentence: I don’t get it.

Book Review of My Brilliant Friend on a Post-it

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About Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist.

Ferrante is the author of a half dozen novels, including  The Lost Daughter  (originally published as  La figlia oscura , 2006).

In 2012, Europa Editions began publication of English translations of Ferrante's  "Neapolitan Novels" , a series about two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples who try to create lives for themselves within a violent and stultifying culture.

Critics have praised her for her  "devastating power as a novelist"  and for a style that is  "pleasingly rigorous and sharply forthright." 

Ferrante holds that  "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors."

10th March 2016,  The Story of the Lost Child  was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International prize, celebrating the finest in global fiction translated to English.

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February 18, 2022 at 5:51 pm

I’m not the only one who found this story disturbing and rambling!! I agree wholeheartedly with this reviewer. Both girls seem to be lacking a moral compass. The story leaves many questions unanswered.

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my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions
  • ISBN-10: 1609450787
  • ISBN-13: 9781609450786
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How Elena Ferrante’s Brutally Entwined Frenemies Magnetized Us All

The audio book club makes a brilliant friend, slate critics debate the first of elena ferrante’s neapolitan novels..

To listen to the Audio Book Club discussion of  My Brilliant Friend , click the arrow on the player below.

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This month, David Haglund, Katy Waldman, and New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal discuss My Brilliant Friend , the first of reclusive writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about the difficult, lifelong enmeshment of two working-class Italian women. Are Lila and Elena typical girlhood frenemies? What makes Lila, as she is drawn in Elena’s hand, so captivating? Why do so many critics overlook the question of class in these books? And who IS Ferrante, anyway?

The Audio Book Club (perhaps) has answers. 

Next month the Audio Book Club will debate Phil Klay’s National Book Award–winning Redeployment , about the political and psychological impacts of the Iraq War. Read the book and stay tuned for our discussion in February!

Visit our  Audio Book Club archive page  for a complete list of the more than 75 books we’ve discussed over the years. Or you can listen to any of our previous club meetings through our iTunes feed.

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My Brilliant Friend : Book summary and reviews of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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My Brilliant Friend

by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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Published Sep 2012 336 pages Genre: Literary Fiction Publication Information

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Book summary.

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, set in a vibrant and colorful modern-day Naples. Ferrante's inimitable style lends itself perfectly to this penetrating portrait of two marvelous women. Here, too, is the story of an entire 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, Elena and Lila learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone 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. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country undergoing momentous change. The first in a trilogy, My Brilliant Friend introduces readers to two unforgettable protagonists and to the famed and flawed beauty of modern Naples. 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, already a bestseller in Europe, she proves herself to be one of Italy's great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant 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.

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Reader reviews.

"Stunning…The raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare." - The New York Times "Ferrante's prose is stunningly candid, direct and unforgettable." - Publishers Weekly "Elena Ferrante will blow you away." - Alice Sebold "[ The Days of Abandonment & Troubling Love ] are tour de forces…They both confirm Ferrante's reputation as one of Italy's best contemporary novelists." - The Seattle Times "This piercing novel [ The Lost Daughter ] is not so easily dislodged from the memory." - The Boston Globe

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Elena Ferrante Author Biography

Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), which was made into a film directed by Roberto Faenza, Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), adapted by Mario Martone, and The Lost Daughter (Europa, 2008), soon to be a film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She is also the author of Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey (Europa, 2016) in which she recounts her experience as a novelist, and a children's picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night (Europa, 2016). The four volumes known as the "Neapolitan quartet" ( My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay , and The Story of the Lost Child ) were published in America by Europa between 2012 and 2015. The first season of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend , directed by Saverio Costanzo,...

... Full Biography Link to Elena Ferrante's Website

Name Pronunciation Elena Ferrante: EH-leh-nuh feh-RAHN-tay. Rolled "R" in "Ferrante."

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Word of Mouth

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T HE L ORD : Therein thou’rt free, according to thy merits; The like of thee have never moved My hate. Of all the bold, denying Spirits, The waggish knave least trouble doth create. Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level; Unqualified repose he learns to crave; Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave, Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil. --- J. W. G OETHE , Faust , translation by Bayard Taylor

Eliminating All the Traces

T his morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.

“Since when?” “Since two weeks ago.” “And you’re calling me now?” My tone must have seemed hostile, even though I wasn’t angry or offended; there was just a touch of sarcasm. He tried to respond but he did so in an awkward, muddled way, half in dialect, half in Italian. He said he was sure that his mother was wandering around Naples as usual.

“Even at night?” “You know how she is.” “I do, but does two weeks of absence seem normal?” “Yes. You haven’t seen her for a while, Elena, she’s gotten worse: she’s never sleepy, she comes in, goes out, does what she likes.”

Anyway, in the end he had started to get worried. He had asked everyone, made the rounds of the hospitals: he had even gone to the police. Nothing, his mother wasn’t anywhere. What a good son: a large man, forty years old, who hadn’t worked in his life, just a small-time crook and spendthrift. I could imagine how carefully he had done his searching. Not at all. He had no brain, and in his heart he had only himself.

“She’s not with you?” he asked suddenly. His mother? Here in Turin? He knew the situation perfectly well, he was speaking only to speak. Yes, he liked to travel, he had come to my house at least a dozen times, without being invited. His mother, whom I would have welcomed with pleas- ure, had never left Naples in her life. I answered:

“No, she’s not with me.” “You’re sure?” “Rino, please, I told you she’s not here.” “Then where has she gone?” He began to cry and I let him act out his desperation, sobs that began fake and became real. When he stopped I said: “Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her.” “What do you mean?” “Just what I said. It’s pointless. Learn to stand on your own two feet and don’t call me again, either.” I hung up.

Rino’s mother is named Raffaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide, repulsed by the idea that Rino would have anything to do with her body, and be forced to attend to the details. She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.

Days passed. I looked at my e-mail, at my regular mail, but not with any hope. I often wrote to her, and she almost never responded: this was her habit. She preferred the telephone or long nights of talk when I went to Naples.

I opened my drawers, the metal boxes where I keep all kinds of things. Not much there. I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff, especially anything that had to do with her, and she knows it. I discovered that I have nothing of hers, not a pic- ture, not a note, not a little gift. I was surprised myself. Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or, worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.

This time I telephoned Rino; I did it unwillingly. He didn’t answer on the house phone or on his cell phone. He called me in the evening, when it was convenient. He spoke in the tone of voice he uses to arouse pity.

“I saw that you called. Do you have any news?” “No. Do you?” “Nothing.” He rambled incoherently. He wanted to go on TV, on the show that looks for missing persons, make an appeal, ask his mamma’s forgiveness for everything, beg her to return.

I listened patiently, then asked him: “Did you look in her closet?”

“What for?” Naturally the most obvious thing would never occur to him. “Go and look.” He went, and he realized that there was nothing there, not one of his mother’s dresses, summer or winter, only old hang- ers. I sent him to search the whole house. Her shoes were gone. The few books: gone. All the photographs: gone. The movies: gone. Her computer had disappeared, including the old-fash- ioned diskettes and everything, everything to do with her expe- rience as an electronics wizard who had begun to operate com- puters in the late sixties, in the days of punch cards. Rino was astonished. I said to him:

“Take as much time as you want, but then call and tell me if you’ve found even a single hairpin that belongs to her.”

He called the next day, greatly agitated. “There’s nothing.” “Nothing at all?” “No. She cut herself out of all the photographs of the two of us, even those from when I was little.” “You looked carefully?” “Everywhere.” “Even in the cellar?”

“I told you, everywhere. And the box with her papers is gone: I don’t know, old birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts. What does it mean? Did someone steal everything? What are they looking for? What do they want from my mother and me?”

I reassured him, I told him to calm down. It was unlikely that anyone wanted anything, especially from him.

“Can I come and stay with you for a while?” “No.” “Please, I can’t sleep.” “That’s your problem, Rino, I don’t know what to do about it.” I hung up and when he called back I didn’t answer. I sat

down at my desk. Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought. She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.

I was really angry.

We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

The Story of Don Achille

M y friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.

I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, with- out ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.

At some point she gave me one of her firm looks, eyes nar- rowed, and headed toward the building where Don Achille lived. I was frozen with fear. Don Achille was the ogre of fairy tales, I was absolutely forbidden to go near him, speak to him, look at him, spy on him, I was to act as if neither he nor his family existed. Regarding him there was, in my house but not only mine, a fear and a hatred whose origin I didn’t know. The way my father talked about him, I imagined a huge man, cov- ered with purple boils, violent in spite of the “don,” which to me suggested a calm authority. He was a being created out of some unidentifiable material, iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth. I thought that if I merely saw him from a distance he would drive some- thing sharp and burning into my eyes. So if I was mad enough to approach the door of his house he would kill me.

I waited to see if Lila would have second thoughts and turn back. I knew what she wanted to do, I had hoped that she would forget about it, but in vain. The street lamps were not yet lighted, nor were the lights on the stairs. From the apart- ments came irritable voices. To follow Lila I had to leave the bluish light of the courtyard and enter the black of the door- way. When I finally made up my mind, I saw nothing at first, there was only an odor of old junk and DDT. Then I got used to the darkness and found Lila sitting on the first step of the first flight of stairs. She got up and we began to climb.

We kept to the side where the wall was, she two steps ahead, I two steps behind, torn between shortening the dis- tance or letting it increase. I can still feel my shoulder inching along the flaking wall and the idea that the steps were very high, higher than those in the building where I lived. I was trembling. Every footfall, every voice was Don Achille creep- ing up behind us or coming down toward us with a long knife, the kind used for slicing open a chicken breast. There was an odor of sautéing garlic. Maria, Don Achille’s wife, would put me in the pan of boiling oil, the children would eat me, he would suck my head the way my father did with mullets.

We stopped often, and each time I hoped that Lila would decide to turn back. I was all sweaty, I don’t know about her. Every so often she looked up, but I couldn’t tell at what, all that was visible was the gray areas of the big windows at every landing. Suddenly the lights came on, but they were faint, dusty, leaving broad zones of shadow, full of dangers. We waited to see if it was Don Achille who had turned the switch, but we heard nothing, neither footsteps nor the opening or closing of a door. Then Lila continued on, and I followed.

She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was. We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.

At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.

It was her fault. Not too long before—ten days, a month, who can say, we knew nothing about time, in those days—she had treacherously taken my doll and thrown her down into a cellar. Now we were climbing toward fear; then we had felt obliged to descend, quickly, into the unknown. Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something ter- rible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us. When you haven’t been in the world long, it’s hard to comprehend what disasters are at the origin of a sense of disaster: maybe you don’t even feel the need to. Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yes- terday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night. I was small and really my doll knew more than I did. I talked to her, she talked to me. She had a plastic face and plastic hair and plastic eyes. She wore a blue dress that my mother had made for her in a rare moment of happiness, and she was beautiful. Lila’s doll, on the other hand, had a cloth body of a yellowish color, filled with sawdust, and she seemed to me ugly and grimy. The two spied on each other, they sized each other up, they were ready to flee into our arms if a storm burst, if there was thunder, if someone bigger and stronger, with sharp teeth, wanted to snatch them away.

We played in the courtyard but as if we weren’t playing together. Lila sat on the ground, on one side of a small barred basement window, I on the other. We liked that place, espe- cially because behind the bars was a metal grating and, against the grating, on the cement ledge between the bars, we could arrange the things that belonged to Tina, my doll, and those of Nu, Lila’s doll. There we put rocks, bottle tops, little flowers, nails, splinters of glass. I overheard what Lila said to Nu and repeated it in a low voice to Tina, slightly modified. If she took a bottle top and put it on her doll’s head, like a hat, I said to mine, in dialect, Tina, put on your queen’s crown or you’ll catch cold. If Nu played hopscotch in Lila’s arms, I soon after- ward made Tina do the same. Still, it never happened that we decided on a game and began playing together. Even that place we chose without explicit agreement. Lila sat down there, and I strolled around, pretending to go somewhere else. Then, as if I’d given it no thought, I, too, settled next to the cellar win- dow, but on the opposite side.

The thing that attracted us most was the cold air that came from the cellar, a breath that refreshed us in spring and sum- mer. And then we liked the bars with their spiderwebs, the darkness, and the tight mesh of the grating that, reddish with rust, curled up both on my side and on Lila’s, creating two par- allel holes through which we could drop rocks into obscurity and hear the sound when they hit bottom. It was all beautiful and frightening then. Through those openings the darkness might suddenly seize the dolls, who sometimes were safe in our arms, but more often were placed deliberately next to the twisted grating and thus exposed to the cellar’s cold breath, to its threatening noises, rustling, squeaking, scraping.

Nu and Tina weren’t happy. The terrors that we tasted every day were theirs. We didn’t trust the light on the stones, on the buildings, on the scrubland beyond the neighborhood, on the people inside and outside their houses. We imagined the dark corners, the feelings repressed but always close to exploding. And to those shadowy mouths, the caverns that opened beyond them under the buildings, we attributed every- thing that frightened us in the light of day. Don Achille, for example, was not only in his apartment on the top floor but also down below, a spider among spiders, a rat among rats, a shape that assumed all shapes. I imagined him with his mouth open because of his long animal fangs, his body of glazed stone and poisonous grasses, always ready to pick up in an enormous black bag anything we dropped through the torn corners of the grate. That bag was a fundamental feature of Don Achille, he always had it, even at home, and into it he put material both living and dead.

Lila knew that I had that fear, my doll talked about it out loud. And so, on the day we exchanged our dolls for the first time—with no discussion, only looks and gestures—as soon as she had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into the darkness.

Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad. In that class we were all a little bad, but only when the teacher, Maestra Oliviero, couldn’t see us. Lila, on the other hand, was always bad. Once she tore up some blotting paper into little pieces, dipped the pieces one by one in the inkwell, and then fished them out with her pen and threw them at us. I was hit twice in the hair and once on my white collar. The teacher yelled, as she knew how to do, in a voice like a needle, long and pointed, which terror- ized us, and ordered her to go and stand behind the black- board in punishment. Lila didn’t obey and didn’t even seem frightened; she just kept throwing around pieces of inky paper. So Maestra Oliviero, a heavy woman who seemed very old to us, though she couldn’t have been much over forty, came down from the desk, threatening her. The teacher stumbled, it wasn’t clear on what, lost her balance, and fell, striking her face against the corner of a desk. She lay on the floor as if dead.

What happened right afterward I don’t remember, I remem- ber only the dark bundle of the teacher’s motionless body, and Lila staring at her with a serious expression.

I have in my mind so many incidents of this type. We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo’s youngest child had died of croup. A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. My mother’s father had been killed when he fell from a scaffolding at a building site. The father of Signor Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Giuseppina, Signor Peluso’s wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two. The old- est son of Don Achille—I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him—had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it. Luigina, with whom we had played in the courtyard, or maybe not, she was only a name, had died of typhus. Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accom- panied me all my life.

You could also die of things that seemed normal. You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe. You could die if you ate black cherries and didn’t spit out the pits. You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it. You could die if you banged your temple. The temple, in particular, was a fragile place, we were all careful about it. Being hit with a stone could do it, and throwing stones was the norm. When we left school a gang of boys from the countryside, led by a kid called Enzo or Enzuccio, who was one of the children of Assunta the fruit and vegetable seller, began to throw rocks at us. They were angry because we were smarter than them. When the rocks came at us we ran away, except Lila, who kept walking at her regular pace and sometimes even stopped. She was very good at studying the trajectory of the stones and dodging them with an easy move that today I would call elegant. She had an older brother and maybe she had learned from him, I don’t know, I also had brothers, but they were younger than me and from them I had learned nothing. Still, when I realized that she had stayed behind, I stopped to wait for her, even though I was scared.

Already then there was something that kept me from aban- doning her. I didn’t know her well; we had never spoken to each other, although we were constantly competing, in class and outside it. But in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave with her something of mine that she would never give back.

At first I stayed hidden, around a corner, and leaned out to see if Lila was coming. Then, since she wouldn’t budge, I forced myself to rejoin her; I handed her stones, and even threw some myself. But I did it without conviction: I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions. Lila, on the other hand, had, from a young age—I can’t say now precisely if it was so at six or seven, or when we went together up the stairs that led to Don Achille’s and were eight, almost nine—the characteristic of absolute determination. Whether she was gripping the tri- color shaft of the pen or a stone or the handrail on the dark stairs, she communicated the idea that whatever came next— thrust the pen with a precise motion into the wood of the desk, dispense inky bullets, strike the boys from the countryside, climb the stairs to Don Achille’s door—she would do without hesitation.

The gang came from the railroad embankment, stocking up on rocks from the trackbed. Enzo, the leader, was a dangerous child, with very short blond hair and pale eyes; he was at least three years older than us, and had repeated a year. He threw small, sharp-edged rocks with great accuracy, and Lila waited for his throws to demonstrate how she evaded them, making him still angrier, and responded with throws that were just as dangerous. Once we hit him in the right calf, and I say we because I had handed Lila a flat stone with jagged edges. The stone slid over Enzo’s skin like a razor, leaving a red stain that immediately gushed blood. The child looked at his wounded leg. I have him before my eyes: between thumb and index finger he held the rock that he was about to throw, his arm was raised to throw it, and yet he stopped, bewildered. The boys under his command also looked incredulously at the blood. Lila, however, manifested not the least satisfaction in the out- come of the throw and bent over to pick up another stone. I grabbed her by the arm; it was the first contact between us, an abrupt, frightened contact. I felt that the gang would get more ferocious and I wanted to retreat. But there wasn’t time. Enzo, in spite of his bleeding calf, came out of his stupor and threw the rock in his hand. I was still holding on to Lila when the rock hit her in the head and knocked her away from me. A sec- ond later she was lying on the sidewalk with a gash in her fore- head.

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

My Brilliant Friend by by Elena Ferrante

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions
  • ISBN-10: 1609450787
  • ISBN-13: 9781609450786
  • About the Book
  • Discussion Questions
  • Reading Guide (PDF)

my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

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Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace in My Brilliant Friend.

My Brilliant Friend review – sink into a slice of this Neapolitan delight

Gripping, heartbreaking, and beautiful, the second series of the gorgeous Elena Ferrante adaptation shows no signs of slacking

M y Brilliant Friend (Sky Atlantic) never quite had the breakout moment that a series of its quality deserved. Perhaps this second series will bring it the audience to match the acclaim. The beautiful and graceful adaptation of Elena Ferrante ’s Neapolitan novels moves to book two, The Story of a New Name , and picks up on the evening of Lila’s wedding to the vile Stefano, precisely where season one left off.

Its debut season managed to take elements that are usually signs of, if not a dud, then a slog – the risk of adapting beloved novels, child actors, a voiceover narrating the story, trying to make writing appear interesting on screen – and made all of them sing. It shows no sign of slacking as it moves into the 1950s.

For Lila, marriage is a direct root out of poverty, but her husband has betrayed her before they have even left for the honeymoon, and their trip to the Amalfi coast is far from the celebration is should be. It descends, quickly and inevitably, into shocking, horrifying violence. When Lila returns home, she finds that she may have escaped her old impoverished neighbourhood and moved into a nicer one, but the trappings are the same as they are for most wives of her era and environment. She simply has bigger rooms and more trinkets. To see Lila stuck in a domestic no man’s land, her spirit sapped away, is heartbreaking.

My Brilliant Friend.

Her brilliant friend Lenù, meanwhile, is continuing along her own, slower, path to escape, pursuing the education that Lila was denied. When Lenù starts to doubt her ability to see her schooling through to the end, owing to a crisis of confidence and the distractions of romantic entanglements, it feels like a double betrayal, because she is learning for the two of them. Yet Lenù is sympathetic, her choices understandable. She tries to force herself to care about Antonio, the local boy who wants to marry her, as her way of tethering herself to her old neighbourhood. But he is unable to trust her, or rather, his insecurities make him uneasy, because she is educated and he is not. She wants to love him because he is safe, unlike the lofty and aloof Nino, who wears glasses, prints his own magazine and talks about workers’ rights.

The two girls had drifted apart by the end of season one, divided by unavoidable resentments and differing circumstances, but here they are back together, working out how each of them can make their way through their lives as young women.

My Brilliant Friend is excellent on the complicated nature of female friendships and how they can turn on competition and admiration, particularly when the playing field is not level and never will be. As smart teenage girls in a society that has little need for them, the odds are almost always stacked against them. They are hungry for experience but, at 16, Lila has a violent husband who repulses her. There is a shot of Stefano eating prawns and sloshing back wine that hammers home his grotesqueness, and it reminded me of Tony Soprano at his most gluttonous. In grown-up dresses that drown her frame, she looks 20 years older than she is, wandering around her showroom of a home. The leads, Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco, are both remarkable, not least because they appear to be the same age as their characters, and have a lot of weight to carry.

My Brilliant Friend.

When Stefano brings Lila back from their honeymoon, she is forced to sit down with her family, her face black and blue. She sits there as if daring them to ask. They all awkwardly ignore the bruises until, eventually, a friend walks in and is shocked enough to mention it without thought. She tells them she fell on the rocks, and the terrible relief is palpable: they know she’s lying, but this way they won’t have to confront it. Later, when she tells Lenù what happened, a tear slowly drips down her friend’s face. But the empathy seems to revive Lila, and rekindle some of what has been taken away. At the end of the opening episode, she seems ready to fight again.

Most big television shows are gorgeous now, thanks to a combination of technical advancement, the seemingly bottomless pot of money and the fact that, since TV is now considered cinematic, dominated by Hollywood stars, it really needs to look the part. But even by those standards, My Brilliant Friend is an exceptionally gorgeous show.

It takes its time when it needs to and zips through the parts where it does not need to linger. (I am ambivalent only about the depiction of a rape, which is part of the story, but the scene goes on too long, and seems unnecessarily cruel in its detail.) My Brilliant Friend is absorbing, gripping television that demands that you sink into it completely, closing off all distractions.

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Review: ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Is an Intimate Epic

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my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

By James Poniewozik

  • Nov. 14, 2018

In 2011, HBO began a series based on a set of books whose legion of fans had exacting expectations. “Game of Thrones” required condensing a vast narrative, visualizing wonders like dragons’ flight and creating a world that spanned continents.

HBO’s new series “My Brilliant Friend,” based on the wildly popular Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante , is a different but no smaller challenge. The story of a febrile and rivalrous friendship between two girls in a working-class Italian neighborhood in the 1950s, it is as intimate as “Game of Thrones” is sweeping.

The first season, which begins Sunday, is set largely in a single cluster of apartments. Its drama, though punctuated by violence, is interior and inwardly focused. It enfolds warring families and shifting alliances, but in a setting where everyone is packed close and prying eyes and whispers are inescapable.

It is a game of courtyards, stairwells and balconies. But as earthbound as it is, “My Brilliant Friend” is no less transporting.

For readers of the books, it is probably enough to know that the first season, which corresponds to the first of the four novels, sticks close to the source material. For newcomers, that is the story of Elena Greco, called Lenù, and Rafaella Cerullo, called Lila. They form an ardent bond their first year of school, in a dusty, low-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples.

Lenù (played by Elisa Del Genio as a girl, Margherita Mazzucco as a teenager) is studious and reserved, a people pleaser. Lila (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) is prodigiously smart, with a fierce charisma and a prophet’s coal-eyed intensity. They’re two bright girls in a community that doesn’t know what to do with bright girls.

[ Want to read more about “My Brilliant Friend”? Here’s our roundup of what’s being written. ]

As they get older, their lives diverge. Lenù’s parents keep her in school (an expense her mother resents). Lila, a shoe repairman’s daughter, drops out to work but devours books and teaches herself Latin and Greek, mastering effortlessly what Lenù strains to achieve.

“My Brilliant Friend” is constantly conscious of how money and small gradations of privilege change lives. When you’re poor, aspiration can become a burden, something that makes your parents angry. If you have a gift, like Lila does, you must use it as a tool, to free yourself. “To escape this neighborhood,” she announces, “you need money.”

An international coproduction directed by the Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo, “My Brilliant Friend” is scripted in Italian, which makes its cloistered world all the more immersive. The grimy neighborhood — part of a vast complex of original sets — reproduces physically what Ferrante’s prose communicated, the claustrophobia of the setting and the relationships. (The adjective “close” can mean either “dear” or “suffocating.” In “My Brilliant Friend,” it always means both.)

Just beyond the four-story apartments, trains pass and cars speed on the highway, but no one here is going anywhere. Sunlight and air are things to be found elsewhere, or inside books. When Lenù spends a few weeks on a nearby resort island, or the girls and their friends take a disastrous outing to a wealthy part of Naples, they may as well have stepped onto another planet.

The poverty left behind by the war still looms, as does resentment toward the few families who got wealthy off the fascist-era black market and now rule like tiny royal houses. The girls know Don Achille (Antonio Pennarella), the town’s thuggish kingpin, as a real-life boogeyman; later, Marcello and Michele Solara (Elvis Esposito and Alessio Gallo), arrogant rich bros who cruise girls, sharklike, in their shiny car, become a more familiar menace.

Ferrante is credited as a writer on the series, and like her novels, the adaptation has a sharp sense of time and place without nostalgia or sentimentality. Costanzo’s attention to period detail helps; it can feel as if you’re watching a lost postwar Italian film about postwar Italy.

You see the world expand through the eyes of two girls — days of dullness, punctuated by men beating each other in the street and women raging out windows. A scene imagines the town’s quiet anger, in Lenù’s fantasy, as a swarm of insects that teem from the sewers at night, “making our mothers as angry as starving dogs.”

All four actresses in the pivotal roles are astounding. Nasti and Girace convey Lila’s spooky genius maturing into volatility. Del Genio and Mazzucco have the less showy but equally complex role: Lenù is insightful, yet her emotions are enigmatic even to herself.

In the few places “My Brilliant Friend” stumbles, it is from an excess of faithfulness to the source. The series keeps the framing device — an older Lenù sets out to write the story after getting a call that Lila has gone missing — and therefore the narration, which in the novel helped sketch the complicated inner life of the reserved Lenù.

But it would often be better to let the direction and the remarkable performances show us what we’re being told. The voice-over can end up competing with them, as when the teenage Lenù goes to Naples with her father and sees the sea for the first time. We can see the awe and sense of possibility on her face; we don’t need to hear it as well.

Overall, though, it’s no small thing how well and how often “My Brilliant Friend” finds TV correlatives for the luminous art of Ferrante, the series’s unseen star.

Ferrante is not listed as the creator (there is no creator credit on the series), but “My Brilliant Friend” still stands out in an HBO drama-series lineup that has been dominated by turbulent men.

As the story of “My Brilliant Friend” expands, it takes on elements of more testosterone-driven cable dramas: men raging against their circumstances, family rivalries coming to bloodshed, boys courting girls passionately and menacingly. But this time it’s from the fully inhabited perspective of two young women who, in past versions of these tales, would be supporting players, or objects, or victims.

That feels quietly revolutionary. And it’s a counterpoint to cable-drama history as “The Sopranos” creeps up on its 20th anniversary in January. Lenù and Lila, as it happens, are growing up not far from the part of the boot where Tony’s people came from. But their terrifying and wondrous Naples is far, far removed from his New Jersey, in ways you can’t measure on a map.

My Brilliant Friend Sunday on HBO

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my brilliant friend elena ferrante book review

10 Facts About ‘My Brilliant Friend’

R eaders around the world were transported to post-war Naples by My Brilliant Friend ( L’amica Geniale in Italian), the first entry of Elena Ferrante’s sprawling but intensely personal Neapolitan quartet. Though the novel’s famously anonymous author can be taciturn and even contradictory in interviews, we can glean some insights about the book from her limited public words and those of her collaborators.  

1. Author Elena Ferrante considers it part of a larger novel.

Many readers of My Brilliant Friend were happy to learn Elena and Lila’s story doesn’t end with the novel’s last page. The book is the first of a four-part series (collectively known as the Neapolitan Novels ) that follows the contentious friendship of two Italian women from girlhood to late life. Though they were published separately, Ferrante has stated she considers My Brilliant Friend , The Story of a New Name , Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay , and The Story of the Lost Child four parts of “a single novel .” 

2. My Brilliant Friend is hailed as a modern classic.

My Brilliant Friend was published in Italy in 2011, and it’s already regarded as a modern classic. Entertainment Weekly declared the four Neapolitan Novels to be the best book series of the decade in 2019. Other publications have gone further with their praise; according to lists from Vulture and The Guardian , My Brilliant Friend ranks among the best books of the 21st century so far. 

3. It’s been translated into 45 languages.

In addition to praise from critics, My Brilliant Friend has received massive financial success. Less than a decade after its release, the first installment of the Neapolitan Novels series had sold more than 5 million copies. The series has been published in 45 languages .

4. The author’s true identity is a mystery. 

Reading the richly rendered account of a decades-long friendship between the two main characters of the books that make up her Neapolitan quartet, many readers felt they knew Ferrante themselves. That literary intimacy was complicated by the fact that Ferrante’s true identity remains unconfirmed ; “Elena Ferrante” is a pen name.

Frantumaglia (a “jumble of fragments”) is a collection of Ferrante’s ostensibly non-fiction writing. Despite her self-professed goal “to orchestrate lies that always tell … the truth” in interviews, those fragments offer an opportunity to draw conclusions about the “real” Ferrante. Naples apparently holds a central place in her life, though she “ran away as soon as [she] could.” She loves to write, but is beset by fear and self-doubt. The book offers numerous explanations for Ferrante’s anonymity, including “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility” and a lack of “physical courage.” These self-deprecating remarks surely represent a facet of Ferrante’s reluctance, but she suggests a deeper current guiding her decision: “Writing with the knowledge that I don’t have to appear produces a space of absolute creative freedom. It’s a corner of my own that I intend to defend.”

5. The cover is intentionally cheesy.

My Brilliant Friend is regarded as a modern literary classic, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it based on its appearance. The covers used throughout the series, which feature heavily edited photographs of faceless stock models, have been compared to those of supermarket romance novels . The publishers claim the incongruous cheesiness is intentional. Ferrante’s art director told Slate in 2015, “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.”

6. The first draft let both friends narrate.

One of the driving tensions of My Brilliant Friend revolves around identifying the eponymous brilliant friend. Readers might easily imagine the title being spoken by the novel’s narrator, Elena “Lenù” Greco. She describes her friend Lila as “the best among us” while calling herself “second in everything.” And though the book revolves, in many ways, around the ever-changing perceptions the girls have of themselves and one another, it still can feel revelatory to read, for the first time, the moment when Lila tells Elena (emphasis added), “you’re my brilliant friend , you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

This sudden yet seemingly inevitable upending of our expectations may not have landed with the same weight if the narrative wasn’t told completely from Elena’s perspective. Interestingly, the choice to tell the story in this way wasn’t always clear to Ferrante. 

She told an interviewer that “there were long episodes” written by Lila in the first draft of the novel. Ferrante eventually decided that the book required a single narrator, leaving readers to wonder what Lila might have written about the moment her formal education ends, or imagining the prose she may have crafted in writing her story of The Blue Fairy .

7. It was adapted into an HBO series.

Following their massive critical and commercial success, it was only a matter of time before Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels were adapted for the screen. The first season of the television series My Brilliant Friend, a co-production from HBO and Italian broadcaster Rai, premiered in 2018 . Though it shares a title with the first book in the series, the show will eventually cover all four novels, with each season adapting a different installment. The third season aired in 2022, and the release date of the fourth and final season has yet to be announced. 

8. Ferrante can’t pin down the inspiration for the novel.

My Brilliant Friend’s Italian director Saverio Costanzo reportedly faced budgetary and schedule restrictions, and he nearly removed the novel’s culminating wedding scene from his adaptation. Ferrante, whom he collaborated with through email, apparently pressed upon him : “Listen, the first moment I thought about My Brilliant Friend , the first image I had was a banquet, a very vulgar banquet of Neapolitan life. Please put the banquet back in.”

Costanzo acquiesced, but he would perhaps not be entirely surprised to learn that his enigmatic colleague has told different versions of the novel’s inception. In an interview , Ferrante declared that she’s unable to give a “precise answer” identifying the original idea for the book, mentioning a friend’s death, a wedding, and even her own novel, The Lost Daughter , as possible kernels that would eventually develop into the four-part story. 

9. A graphic novel adaptation is coming October 2023.

Since being adapted for the screen, My Brilliant Friend has been reimagined as a graphic novel. The new book from Europa Editions features Mara Cerri’s illustrations and text adapted by Chiara Lagani from Ferrante’s original text. Ann Goldstein, who translated the novels, also translated the illustrated adaptation for English readers. It’s slated to hit shelves in October 2023, and is currently available for preorder .

10. My Brilliant Friend is a literary funhouse mirror. 

Events and identities seem to echo throughout Ferrante’s work, not just within individual novels but through wide swaths of literature. Ferrante has said that she “read[s] a lot, but in a disorderly way,” and one can imagine her writing, among other things, serving a kind of organizing and complicating function as she traces and retraces memories, real and literary. 

Elena is the name of the narrator in My Brilliant Friend , and of the main character’s child in Ferrante’s earlier book, The Lost Daughter . It’s also the first name in her nom de plume, of course, an identity with its own echoes of the Italian author Elsa Morante , whose work Ferrante has expressed admiration for on numerous occasions. From Virgil to Louisa May Alcott to Lenù and Ferrante themselves, writers seem to float in and out of the book’s margins, influencing the author and characters all at once. 

This article was originally published on as 10 Facts About ‘My Brilliant Friend’ .

10 Facts About ‘My Brilliant Friend’

Elena Ferrante

Author of the neapolitan novels.

Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend

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The Dartmouth:“Neapolitan Quartet” is an immersive look at a female friendship

On The Dartmouth

Jan 1, 2018 – Isabelle Blank

Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s operatic Neapolitan Quartet, a series that spans four volumes and six decades of friendship, traces the intertwined lives of characters Lila and Lenù. The series begins with Lenù and Lila’s childhood as they grow up in a poor Neapolitan neighborhood and traces their subsequent lives as wives, mothers and ultimately lonely old women. The quartet is a series of cyclical events encapsulated in a larger cyclical narrative structure. The first book of the series, entitled “My Brilliant Friend,” opens at the fourth book’s close. Rino, Lila’s son, telephones Lenù to tell her that his mother has gone missing. At the end of the final book, entitled “The Story of a Lost Child,” there is no answer as to where Lila has disappeared. However, Ferrante writes such a thorough description of Lila’s character and psyche throughout the series that, in the final book, it makes sense as to why she erased herself. It seems not to matter where she’s gone. Lila is mean, whip-smart and down-trodden — how could she not want to disappear, how could she not want to melt into what she calls the “dissolving boundaries” of her complicated world?

Ferrante weaves an intricate cloth depicting detailed scenes and characters that repeat themselves over and over to construct a patterned, sprawling tapestry. These intimate, very often domestic, scenes that Ferrante writes involve only the characters introduced in a list at the beginning of each volume. Though the scenes are private and the characters insular, the story conveys broad-reaching meditations on class, femininity and politics.

Lenù and Lila are foils for one another. Lenù is blonde, studious, eager to please, self-doubting and ambitious, whereas Lila is dark, naturally brilliant, mercurial, mean and irresistible to those around her. The story is told from Lenù’s point of view, but the two friends understand one another on such a deep and complex level that the reader is often privy to Lila’s perceived inner thoughts. The two are paradoxically bound to, yet at odds with, one another. Lenù cannot resist Lila’s magnetism, her cutting intellect and her unbounded passion even when Lila is at her most cruel. Ferrante’s prose is cerebral. The reader is immersed not only in Ferrante’s cinematic scenes, but also in Lenù’s body and her psyche. Ferrante lays bare Lila and Lenù’s most unlikable traits: their respective failures as mothers, their self-absorption, their gnawing anxiety, their seeming inability to experience joy and their mutual jealousy.

San Diego Jewish World: Book Review: ‘My Brilliant Friend’

On San Diego Jewish World

Jan 1, 2019 – Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

This novel, the first of a quartet, has become an international bestseller and has been widely praised in literary circles. So I was overjoyed when I was able to pick up a copy someone had discarded at one of the airports I visited recently. I found it a wee bit difficult to get into at first, but once I had overcome that initial barrier I found myself entranced by the account of the friendship between two girls, Elena (Lenu) and Lila, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of post-war Naples. The book starts with their childhood, when they both still played with dolls, continues with their teenage years and adolescent agonies, and ends with the wedding of one of them, though still a teenager.

The author manages to describe the feelings and experiences of those childhood years, with the close but fluctuating relationship between the two girls, as well as between them and the people around them, in a vivid and engaging way. The writing style does not always read smoothly, and at times there are too many jerky stops and starts in the narrative flow for my taste, but the intensity of the emotions and events described help the reader to overcome any reluctance he or she might have to continue reading.

The first few pages of the book provide an index of the various families who comprise the main characters of the neighbourhood and the book, and I found this very helpful, as the Italian names and surnames are sometimes difficult to differentiate and thus to imagine the characters. After all, when half the boys are called Gino, Nino, and Rino, that does not help the reader to distinguish between them.

We Tell a Story and Try to Do Our Best

Answers to questions from merve emre  .

Dear Elena (if I may),

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I am a great admirer of your writing. I am also grateful to you for writing the kinds of novels every literature professor dreams about teaching. For the past two years, I have assigned the Neapolitan novels in my class on contemporary fiction; it is rare to encounter novels that my students are desperate to keep reading and that also evoke so many urgent, illuminating conversations about genre, form, history, class politics, feminism—everything I want my students to enjoy thinking about in and out of the classroom.

On a more personal note, I have found myself returning to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay many times since having my two children. No other novel I have read captures the vicissitudes of motherhood with such precision: the power and the vulnerability of caring for others, the intimacy and distance between mother and child. It was painful to realize when I became a mother that my mother had a separate life, a different self, before she became my mother; painful, too, to realize that my children might not appreciate this about me until too late. Your novels have helped me think with greater clarity about what it means to be a mother and what it meant to be a daughter. For that, I am grateful too.

Yours warmly,

Merve Emre: The television series My Brilliant Friend opens with a shot of an iPhone 7—Lenu’s cell phone—ringing in the dark. It was a shocking opening for me. The novels have very little engagement with media forms and technologies that are not books: no one sees a movie, no one listens to music, no one reads articles on the computer. What does reading mean to you?

Elena Ferrante : You’re right, the two friends belong to the world of print books, as do I, who invented them. Elena realizes late that she doesn’t have a musical education, for example. Her escape from the neighborhood is centered completely on literacy: reading and studying are the only tools available for breaking the boundaries within which she happened to be born. But don’t forget that Lila, although she’s the first to see the great value of books, will be a pioneer in electronic media.

ME: What does reading mean to you?

EF: Reading is an extraordinary exercise. It doesn’t come naturally; it requires commitment—you have to transform pages crammed with signs into worlds full of life. But once reading has become an intellectual necessity, you can no longer do without it. I’m a very involved, disciplined, collaborative reader. I never abandon a book; even if I don’t like it, I read it to the last line. I always learn something. And I get enthusiastic—perhaps excessively so—when a book is a happy surprise. I recently read a novel that I thought was excellent. I read it in Italian, but I’d like to try to read it in English; I liked its tone very much. It’s called Outline , by Rachel Cusk.

ME: There are moments in previous interviews where you betray an impatience toward literary criticism and, in particular, literary theory for its relentless drive to interpretation and argument. Yet you are an extraordinarily attentive and sensitive reader and strong interpreter of your own fiction and the writing of others. What are your ethics of criticism? How do you believe professionalized readers should write about or teach literature?

EF: I don’t like the impressionistic type of critical work. I don’t like it when a text is taken as an occasion for talking about something else. I prefer works that concentrate on the page, that rigorously analyze the expressive strategies of the writer. A good critical work says to the reader: here’s where the author started from, here’s where he wanted to take me, here are the means he used, here are the goals he was aiming for, here are his debts to tradition, here’s why I liked or hated it.

ME: In Frantumaglia , you hint at your disappointment with the film adaptations of your novellas. What made you decide to let RAI adapt My Brilliant Friend ? What kinds of audiences do you want the televisual adaptation of your work to reach?

EF: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I had no role in the production decisions. The means by which a film comes to be made are unknown to me. But I’ve always been curious to see what happens to my characters and my stories when they leave the page and venture into other media. I like it when they become audiobooks, plays, films. In fact, the more they enter into people’s lives through these other media, the more it seems to me that they are alive and in good health. Naturally I reserve the right to have an opinion on the works that originate in my texts. But I have to say that, even when I don’t like the result, I don’t suffer. Books, once they’re written, can sustain anything: writing makes them in a certain sense invulnerable.

ME: Why did you choose Saverio Costanzo as the director?

EF: I didn’t choose in this case, either, I’ve never had that power. But I have to say that choosing would have been a real problem. I’m a devoted moviegoer, I love films, but I have no expertise in that area. I get excited about films that are very different from one another, films made by people who have nothing in common. If I really did have to decide I would never manage it. I merely proposed a list of names, directors whose work I have a lot of respect for. Among them was Costanzo. When I found out he’d been chosen, I was very pleased.

ME: When I spoke with Saverio last week, he described a process of creating characters on screen that he called “conveying density”: a way of representing a character’s consciousness without explicitly psychologizing her actions, so that a viewer could sense a great and unexplored depth to her every statement, glance, gesture. He suggested that this was a practice of character creation to which you also ascribed; indeed, a practice you had taught him to create continuity between the representation of characters in the novel and on the screen. Can you explain how density works in the novels and how you imagine it working on the screen? Or if “density” is not the right word, can you discuss the difference for you between representing consciousness and psychologizing it in your fiction?

EF: I fear that in a short space I’m in danger of appearing confused. The definition of psychologies is an essential part of the narrator’s work. They focus the motivations both superficial and profound that guide the actions and reactions of the characters in the course of the story. But what decides the success of a character is often half a sentence, a noun, an adjective that jams the psychological machine like a wrench thrown into the works and produces an effect that is no longer that of a well regulated device, but of flesh and blood, of genuine life, and therefore incoherent and unpredictable. In films that effect is produced, I think, by a flash in the gaze, by an involuntary grimace, by an unexpected gesture. It’s the moment when the psychological framework breaks and the character acquires density.

ME: There is an irritating tendency in contemporary writing on motherhood to position motherhood as a psychological impediment to literary creativity—as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. Your novels are ambivalent on motherhood as a creative experience and an experience conducive to literary creativity. (For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace; Lenu’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother even though she complains about her obligations.) How do you think about representing the interplay between (creative) production and (physical) reproduction? What is the relationship between time spent taking care with one’s words and time spent taking care of one’s children?

EF: I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question. But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But, whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: one finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production. Although the difficulties are innumerable, the two can coexist. “Giving birth” is our specificity, belonging only to women, and no one should dare to take it away from us. Men use the metaphor of birth to speak of their works. For us giving birth is not a metaphor—neither when we give birth to children nor when we give birth to books, ideas, images of the world. We know how best to do both.

ME: Can you say a little bit more about being a terrified mother? What is the nature of this terror for you?

EF: I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children. I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers. I prefer mothers who proceed consciously through trial and error, looking for an equilibrium but knowing that any equilibrium is precarious.

ME: Despite the emphasis on female friendship in the reception of the novels, Lila and Lenù end up as singular, lonely characters. Yet the promise of literary and artistic collaboration between women—women reading together, women writing together—is a persistent and seductive fantasy across the novels. Collaboration emerges as a source of artistic bliss and temporary enchantment as well as an opportunity for solidarity among women. How have your experiences with collaboration across media (adaptation) and language (translation) approached or fallen short of this fantasy?

EF: Yes, and it’s not always easy. In general it seems easier for women to collaborate with men. There’s probably a very old habit of submitting to the authority of men, or of developing suitable behavior for pretending to accept it, and meanwhile pursuing our particular aims. Certainly it’s more complicated to recognize the authority of another woman; tradition in that case is more fragile. And yet the path is this: once the expertise of the other woman is recognized, we have to learn to collaborate. It works if, in a relationship between the person in charge and the subordinate, the first wants the other to grow and free herself from her subordinate status, and the second gains her autonomy without feeling obliged to diminish the other. Conflicts are inevitable, but we have to persist. It should never be forgotten that women are stronger together and can achieve astonishing results.

ME: Can you say more about why it is difficult to recognize the authority of another woman?

EF: Although things are changing, in some corner of our brain we continue to think that true authority is male, and that every woman with authority has it only because males have given it to her. It’s as if in that tiny corner we were saying to ourselves: why do I submit to a woman when I could replace her if I go to the true source of power? It’s a trend that should be fought against, by demonstrating through the excellence and force of our works that female authority isn’t a concession from men, doesn’t have value only in the women’s space to which they tend to relegate us, but is an autonomous quality and an asset that is fundamental for the whole human race.

ME: In a previous interview with the Times , you suggested that the children who showed up at the auditions for My Brilliant Friend were “spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.” Last week when I spoke to Saverio, I also spent an afternoon with Ludovica, Elisa, Gaia, and Margharita, the four girls who play the parts of Lila and Lenu. Something that struck me about them is that they have all read your novels—I imagine they are among your youngest readers. For them, the experience of learning to embody your characters has also served as a literary education. (Elisa, for instance, is now reading Little Women; Margharita has moved on to Elsa Morante.) What might young readers—young women readers in particular—learn from the Neapolitan novels?

EF: I don’t know how to answer you. I hope the books communicate the urgent need for solidarity between women. Not only that. I’d like the youngest readers to take from them the necessity of being properly prepared: not in order to be co-opted into male hierarchies but in order to construct a world different from the one we know, and to govern it. Reading good books, always studying, regardless of the work she intends to do, should be a part of every girl’s plan for her life. The only way not to let what we’ve gained be taken away from us is to be smart and capable, to learn to design the world better than men have so far done.

ME: Your readers have an extraordinary desire to open imagined channels of communication with you; to write about their experiences reading your novels. (For example, I recently saw a play in which four Ferrante readers become so absorbed by the Neapolitan novels they start transforming into the characters and writing about their transformations—a kind of magical realist fan fiction.) How do you make sense of the fervor with which the Neapolitan novels have been greeted? Has the reception of the novels surprised you? Has it revealed to you anything you did not already know about their distinctiveness?

EF: I think that writers never really know what book they’ve written. We tell a story and try to do our best, pouring onto the page our experience, our literary sensibility, without sparing ourselves. I realized very slowly that the book contained in itself much more than what I thought I had written. Certainly I wished to describe a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Certainly I knew clearly that Lila would contain the worst and the best of what I know about my sex. But only in time, for example, did I discover how effective the neighborhood was, and the figures who populate it. Or the seductive banality of Nino Sarratore.

ME: The actresses wanted me to ask you a question on their behalf: Have you seen them on screen and, if so, did you glimpse the characters you created in their performances? Did they capture the sensibilities of Lila and Lenu?

EF: I’ve seen the first two episodes. The child Lila is perfect, which will make things hard for the actresses who have to continue the story. The child Elena also effectively sets up the character of the narrator, which is in many ways indecipherable.

ME: One of the most illuminating parts of Frantumaglia for me is your exchange with Mario Martone and the incredible detail with which you attend to the structure of individual scenes, lines, costumes, sets as they are described in his script for Troubling Love. Can you give me some examples of scenes, lines of dialogue, or actor directions from My Brilliant Friend that you discussed at length with Saverio? Were there instances where you resisted or vetoed his initial interpretation of a scene? (In our conversation, Saverio mentioned the beginning (the frame narrative) and the end (the banquet).)

EF: My experience with Martone was brief. He sent me the screenplay, I sent him my impressions on reading it. I did the same thing with Costanzo, in the same way, but the work went on much longer, the exchanges of letters were more numerous. My task was to read and annotate the eight treatments and the eight screenplays that Costanzo and his collaborators were writing. I confined myself to saying what I thought when I felt that the story wasn’t working. Maybe in more than a few cases I was overly frank. Maybe I intervened, with some presumptuousness, in irrelevant details. The problem is that I’m not an expert, and I thought the whole time that stories and screenplays were the film, that every line was therefore crucial. In reality the set is really the important place. The work of writing is a point of departure, it merely traces a map that is to help the director give form—an enormous amount of work—to the story through images.

ME: People frequently ask you about your literary-historical influences, but I am curious about your engagement with contemporary art and literature. What living writers do you enjoy reading? What films do you enjoy watching? What music do you enjoy listening to?

EF: I would have to give a very complex answer, talking about various stages of my life. I’ll answer you some other time.

ME: The novels are not written in Neapolitan dialect. Lorenzo Miele (the executive producer) and Saverio described a densely mediated process of reconstructing and translating the dialect for the television show: hiring a historical linguistic to recreate the 1950s idiom, sending the script to you to check it, then sending it to Ann Goldstein to translate it into English for HBO. Can you talk a little bit about the complications—and perhaps the betrayals—of this layered translation? From the perspective of an Italian spectator, does dialect offer new possibilities for representation?

EF: Yes, in the book there is no dialect but a dialectal cadence strengthened at times by brief insertions of Neapolitan. The film, on the other hand, needed the dialect of the neighborhood, that is, a dialect that was harsh, pre-television, and that in Elena, and also in Lila, would later yield to average educated Italian. That work was done in the screenplay and gives, at least to the Italian viewer, the opportunity to rediscover what impoverished, essentially dialect-speaking Italy was like.

ME: Were there any subplots you discarded from the novels? Were there characters you initially thought you would develop as more rounded, substantial presences that you relegated to a minor status?

EF: No. The book kept all the elements that were present in the first draft. It was a very rare instance, for me, of a story written without structural reconsiderations.

ME: For the past two months, my son has developed an obsession with The Beach at Night despite my sense that he was not the target audience for it. Why did you decide to write a children’s book? How did it differ from writing a novel like My Brilliant Friend , which is focalized through a child’s point of view?

EF: I wrote The Beach at Night for a four-year-old friend of mine who, to her great disappointment, had just had a little sister. It originated in a book I had just finished, “The Lost Daughter.” I was very surprised that my little book was considered unsuitable for young children—my friend had liked it. I’ve always believed that stories for children should have the same energy, the same authenticity, as good books for adults. It’s a mistake to think that childhood needs syrupy fables. The traditional fairy tales weren’t made with cotton candy.

ME: My son also just had a little brother. He is also disappointed by it. Perhaps he’s a better reader than I’ve given him credit for.

Elena Ferrante’s answers translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

In its November 4 issue, the New York Times Magazine published a feature by Merve Emre on the novels of Elena Ferrante and the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend . Emre’s article included excerpts from an interview with Ferrante—the only interview the author has granted to an English language outlet on the occasion of the TV series premiere on November 18. Below, by agreement with Ms. Emre, is the complete text of their exchange, conducted over email in September 2018.

TV Review: ‘My Brilliant Friend’ on HBO

The many admirers of Elena Ferrante’s novel “ My Brilliant Friend ” — the first in her smash series of four books about a pair of Neapolitan women moving through life — likely have two questions about the Italian-language TV adaptation. The first is how faithful it is to the source material, and the second is how well it matches the novel’s effortless ability to move within its protagonist’s mind, tracking subtleties of emotion.

The answers are mainly good news: In the limited series’ first two installments, screened at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 2 before a November bow on  HBO , the story closely tracks the movement of the novel. And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “ My Brilliant Friend ” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.

Elena (Elisabetta De Palo), seen briefly in a framing device, receives a call that her old friend has gone missing, and, knowing that this disappearance had been a long time coming, finally sits down to write the story of their intertwined lives. We shift back in time to the dusty and sun-drunk Naples of the 1950s, where Elena (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio) spent her girlhood, in the perpetual company of the bright but troublesome Lila (Ludovica Nasti). Later in the series, we’ll see them as teenagers.

As we see young Lila throwing crumpled paper at teacher’s-pet Elena, De Palo’s voice intones, “She impressed me at once because she was so bad.” The voice-over device seeks to accomplish the same thing as did the narration of the novel, documenting every childish thought with the wisdom of adulthood. But this device is less than necessary. Young Del Genio and Nasti have the unforced chemistry of the kids from “The Florida Project,” the last great entertainment about kids left largely unsupervised. And their frolics in a community whose rules they barely understand make far more potent points about the innocence of youth, and how it falls away, than the voice-over ever could.

In one striking scene, the pair are reading “Little Women” together as a fight breaks out; the viewer has been able to track the complicated social dynamics leading up to it, but to the children, it’s just noise, one among many interruptions that must be endured as a part of a childhood ending too quickly.

Continue reading →

32 Books That Changed the World – BookBub

My brilliant friend  by elena ferrante.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost 60 years, as its protagonists, the fiery and unforgettable Lila, and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflictual friendship. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as 10-year-olds through their school years and adolescence.

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.

“An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends,” writes  Entertainment Weekly . “Spectacular,” says Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air. “A large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman,” writes James Wood in  The New Yorker.

Ferrante is one of the world’s great storytellers. With  My Brilliant Friend  she has given her readers an abundant, generous, and masterfully plotted page-turner that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight readers for many generations to come.

In a rare interview, Elena Ferrante describes the writing process behind the Neapolitan novels – Los Angeles Times

Seven years ago, it took just one book for an as-yet-unknown Italian novelist to become one of the most prominent personalities of the early 21st century. What made the phenomenon even more unheard of was that it involved an author who had written an epic with undeniable literary ambitions, not a book for young readers, like the “Harry Potter” series. It was a saga with numerous allusions to Italian history, anchored by geography to a small corner of Naples, and these facts seemed to condemn in advance its success as an export.

But the triumph of “My Brilliant Friend” is also stupefying because its author does no promotion at all. Elena Ferrante is a woman without a face, whose identity is known only to her Italian publisher, E/O. Her name is a pseudonym, its sound a discreet homage to the great Italian novelist Elsa Morante, author of “Arturo’s Island” — whose work, Ferrante says here, she has always appreciated. No one has ever succeeded in revealing Ferrante’s true identity, although certain names have circulated in the press: Domenico Starnone, a Neapolitan screenwriter and novelist, and winner of the Strega Prize in 2001; or Anita Raja, a Roman translator. Nearly two years ago, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti published a scoop, identifying Raja as Ferrante, after having scoured her tax returns and deciding that her assets exceeded that of the average income of a person in her profession. Against all odds, the supposed revelation of the identity of Ferrante provoked a worldwide scandal.

For her readers, Ferrante must be allowed to remain anonymous, should she wish to be. An international outcry rose up, from enraged readers who sought to protect the writer they love, and whose anonymity they wish to preserve. Nothing of the like had ever been seen before.

The series that begins with “My Brilliant Friend” has sold more than 5.5 million copies in 42 countries, with more than 2 million copies sold in the U.S. Published in America by Europa Editions, the books are the successful result of an editorial policy that favors demanding work and patience over instant gratification. For literary professionals, it is a sign that in a time of faint-heartedness, there is still another path to follow: Rather than publishing feel-good books for silly entitled people, you can reach a wide audience betting on real literature.

Where does the great enthusiasm for the tumultuous portrait of Lila and Elena (also called Lenù), the products of an underprivileged neighborhood of Naples, whose friendship begins in the late 1950s, come from? Aside from the thirst for long narratives, which we also see in the incredible boom in TV series, readers of the world seem to want to read about genuine feelings. Who among us has not dreamed of living the complex and spellbinding relationship of these “brilliant” friends? Lila gives up her studies to work in the family shoe factory, while Elena decides to receive a classical education and ends up leaving Naples to seek her professional fortune elsewhere. The proliferation of plot points and the multitude of characters, at a time when the hallmark is simplicity, is a further enticement. The fact remains that the book is first and foremost a war machine: It seduces slowly and possesses a hitherto unseen power of attraction and that irresistible  je ne sais quoi  that makes an overnight success.

And Ferrante? Behind her mask, the novelist distills her public statements with the stinginess of a pharmacist. The interviews she has given may be counted on one hand, and they have been exclusively conducted via email, with her Italian publisher as intermediary. Her desire for anonymity is non-negotiable. For her, once a book has been finished, it must stand on its own. Breaking her near-constant silence here, she explains how she conceived “My Brilliant Friend” in secrecy. She confides the profound joy she gets from writing and speaks of the pleasure she feels in responding to the curiosity of her readers through the volumes she writes. Far from having shut herself in an ivory tower, she discusses #metoo and launches a stirring appeal for the enduring gains of feminism. She compares the experiences of the great Hollywood actresses to those of the poor women of Naples, in a particularly stirring defense. Finally, she gives some unprecedented clues that may help us understand not who she is, but something that all in all is the same: why she writes.

Do you recall when you first had the idea for “My Brilliant Friend”?

I can’t give you a precise answer. It may have had its origin in the death of a friend of mine, or in a crowded wedding celebration, or perhaps in the need to return to themes and images of an earlier book, “The Lost Daughter.” One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind.

Did you know from the beginning that the complete work would require four volumes?

No. In its first rough draft, the story of Lila and Lenù fit very easily into a single, substantial volume. Only when I began to work on that first text did I understand that there would be two, three, four volumes.

Was the whole story planned in advance before the actual writing started?

No, I never plan my stories. A detailed outline is enough for me to lose interest in the whole thing. Even a brief oral summary makes the desire to write what I have in mind vanish. I am one of those who begin to write knowing only a few essential features of the story they intend to tell. The rest they discover line by line.

The first book of the series was published [in Italy] in 2011, the last in 2014 — a short period of time for such an ambitious endeavor. Had you written most of the series before the publication of the first volume? Can you tell us about the timing of the writing/publication of the novel?

I started in 2009 and spent a year, more or less, completing the entire story, with its various turning points. Then I began to revise, and I discovered with great pleasure that from the first page, the text was expanding; it grew and grew, becoming more detailed. At the end of 2010, given the mass of pages that had accumulated merely for telling the story of the childhood and adolescence of Lila and Lenù, the publisher and I decided to publish it in several volumes.

I imagine that when the first novel of the series was published, you were able to write in tranquility. Then came the novel’s extraordinary success, which could have jeopardized your writing. How were you able to keep your work from being disrupted by that overwhelming success?

It was a completely new experience for me. As a child, I liked telling stories and finding effective words for the small audience of kids of my age who gathered around me. It was electrifying to sense their encouragement, to feel that my listeners wanted me to continue, to pick up the story again the next day, the next week. It was a thrilling endeavor and an exciting responsibility. I think I felt something similar between 2011 and 2014. Once I was cut off from the media clamor — which was possible thanks to the absence that I chose starting in 1990 — that childhood pleasure returned: of giving form to a story while an increasingly vast and attentive audience wants you to tell more and more. While readers were reading the first volume, I was refining and finishing the second; while readers were reading the second, I was refining and completing the third; and so on.

Looking back, how would you describe the writing process? Was it effortless and smooth from the start? Or, on the contrary, did you have moments of doubt? Did you go through many drafts, with a lot of cutting and editing?

In the past, I’ve had a lot of problems with writing. I’ve always written, ever since adolescence, but it was a struggle, and I was generally dissatisfied with the result. The consequence is that I’ve rarely been convinced that I should publish. In the case of this very long story, things went differently. The first draft rolled along without running into any obstacles: The pure pleasure of telling a story dominated. Also, the work that ensued in the following years was surprisingly easy, a kind of permanent party. The honing of the four volumes, their polishing for publication, was essentially faithful to the first rough drafts and at the same time expanded and complicated the material. No crisis, in other words, no doubts, very few cuts, few rewritings, a cascade of new inserts. In my mind, there remains the impression of a tidal wave, and when it’s gone, you’re happy that you’re still alive.

In a letter to Mario Martone, you said that any distraction could make writing seem unnecessary, pointing out the fragility of it all. However, no writer seems stronger than you are, and more capable of building a colossal work of fiction. Would you agree that this combination of fragility and strength is essential to your writing?

My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It’s a sensation that I’ve felt very often, and I’m afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I’m fragile. It’s all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it’s pride that I need, more than strength. While I’m writing, I have to believe that it’s up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.

Where does the vital energy of your writing come from?

I don’t know if my writing has the energy you say it does. Of course, if that energy exists, it’s because either it finds no other outlets or, consciously or not, I’ve refused to give it other outlets. Of course, when I write, I draw on parts of myself, of my memory, that are agitated, fragmented, that make me uncomfortable. A story, in my view, is worth writing only if its core comes from there.

 In your description, Naples is rough, violent and unpleasant, and even more so in the second half of the fourth volume, where Lila and Lenù have to confront violence on every side. Have you witnessed acts of extreme violence in Naples yourself? How have Neapolitans been able to cope with violence over the years, and have they developed a particular understanding of the violence innate in human beings, and do you perhaps share that?

One has to be very fortunate not to be touched even slightly by violence and its various manifestations in Naples. But perhaps that’s true of New York, London, Paris. Naples isn’t worse than other cities in Italy or in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time coming to an understanding of it. In the past, I used to think that only in Naples did the lawful continuously lose its boundaries and become confused with the unlawful, that only in Naples did good feelings suddenly, violently, without any break, become bad feelings. Today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask. Since it is a city by nature of astonishing beauty, the ugly — criminality, violence, corruption, connivance, the aggressive fear in which we live defenseless, the deterioration of democracy — stands out more clearly.

Lila and Lenù suffer a lot throughout the books. Why did you choose to subject them to so many tragic experiences of all kinds?

It doesn’t seem to me that their sufferings are very different from those which women endure every day in every part of the world, especially if they’re born poor. Lila and Lenù fall in love, marry, are betrayed, betray, search for a role in the world, face discrimination, give birth, raise children, are sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy, experience loss and death. I do use the novelistic, but relatively sparingly. The emotional bond we establish with characters is generally what makes their story seem like an endless series of misfortunes. In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others, we feel their suffering, only when we learn to love them.

In the fourth volume, why did you choose to make Nino so cruel and superficial?

I wanted to describe the effects of superficiality when it’s combined with a good education and moderate intelligence. Nino is a smart but superficial man, a type of man I’m very familiar with.

Why did the narrative require the traumatic and nightmarish disappearance of Tina, in the fourth volume, near the end of the story?

Here I will decline to give you my reasons — I prefer that readers find their own way. I can only emphasize that that event was always, even before I began to write, one of the few definite and inevitable stops on the narrative journey that I had in mind.

In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others. We feel their suffering only when we learn to love them. Elena Ferrante

Lila is enthusiastic about new electronic tools, like PC computers. She seems to be driven by an instinctual brilliance, and yet, surprisingly, she understands these logical machines. Is she more unpredictable than Lenù, or is it the other way around?

Lila, in my intentions, is never enthusiastic. She applies her intelligence to whatever, for one reason or another, comes into the field of action that she herself is given, starting from the moment she is forced to leave school. It’s because her father is a shoemaker that she designs shoes. It’s because Enzo is taking correspondence courses from IBM that she becomes involved with electronics. Unlike Lenù, who uses education to force the boundaries of the neighborhood and escape, eagerly aspiring to write, Lila acts brilliantly on what turns up, without using up her own capacities in any of the things she happens to get involved in. If one wanted to put it schematically, the only long-range project that really excites Lila is the life of her friend.

In the book, women struggle. Men often take advantage of them. How do you feel about the #MeToo protests throughout the world?

I believe that they have put a spotlight on what women have always known and have always been more or less silent about. Patriarchal domination, even — despite appearances — in the West, is still very entrenched, and each of us, in the most diverse places, in the most varied forms, suffers the humiliation of being a silent victim or a fearful accomplice or a reluctant rebel or even a diligent accuser of victims rather than of the rapists. Paradoxically, I don’t feel that there are great differences between the women of the Neapolitan neighborhood whose story I told and Hollywood actresses or the educated, refined women who work at the highest levels of our socioeconomic system. And raising one’s voice, saying, “Me too,” seems a good thing, but only if we maintain a sense of proportion: Just causes in particular are damaged by excesses. Even though the power of [offenders] large and small at the center of the world or on its peripheries lies in not being ashamed of the various forms of rape they subject us to and, by means of a repulsive stratagem, in making us think that it is we who should be ashamed.

Would you predict — and would you call for — a new feminism to emerge from #MeToo?

A certain disdain for the feminism of mothers and grandmothers has spread among the younger generations in recent years. There is a conviction that the few rights we have are a fact of nature and not the product of an extremely hard cultural and political battle. I hope that things change and that girls will realize that we have millenniums of subservience behind us, that the struggle should continue and that if we lower our guard, it won’t take much to eliminate what, at least on paper, four generations of women have with great difficulty gained.

Would you agree that your novel belongs to a tradition of popular narratives (such as those of Alexandre Dumas), with a lot of action and characters, rather than to a modernist, more minimalist approach to storytelling?

No. I can decide to reuse some of the powerful devices of popular literature, but I do so, like it or not, in an era completely different from the one in which that literature performed its task. I mean that with some regret, I can in no way be Dumas. To draw on the great tradition of the popular novel doesn’t mean creating, for better or for worse, that type of narrative but rather using it, distorting it, violating its rules, disappointing its expectations, all in the service of a story of our time. Rummaging in the great historical warehouse of the novel and the anti-novel is today, in my opinion, a duty for anyone who is by profession a narrator. Diderot could write “The Nun” but also “Jacques the Fatalist.” We can erase the boundary between literary experiences that are different from one another and use them both, at the same time, to give a shape to this historical moment. A lot of action, many characters or the minimalism you allude to, taken separately, don’t carry us far today. Let’s try to get out of useless cages.

You once said that you discovered Flaubert when you were quite young, in Naples. When did you first fall in love with a book, or with a character, and also with literature?

Yes, I really loved “Madame Bovary.” As I girl, when I read, I dragged the stories and the characters into the world I lived in, and “Emma,” I don’t know why, seemed close to many of the women in my family. But long before “Madame Bovary,” I loved “Little Women,” I loved Jo. That book is at the origin of my love for writing.

Have you been influenced by women writers (possibly French, like Colette, Duras, etc.)?

As a girl, I read all kinds of things, in no particular order, and I didn’t pay attention to the names of the authors — whether they were male or female didn’t interest me. I was enthralled by [the characters] Moll Flanders, by the Marquise de Merteuil, by Elizabeth Bennet, by Jane Eyre, by Anna Karenina, and I didn’t care about the sex of the writer. Later, in the late ’70s, I began to be interested in writing by women. If I stick with French writers, I read almost all of Marguerite Duras. But the book of hers that I’ve spent the most time with, studied most closely, is “The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein”; it’s her most complex book, but the one you can learn the most from.

How do you feel about female writing? Do you believe that the category exists — that there is female writing and male writing? For example, Elsa Morante versus Hemingway? As for your own style, would you say it’s a combination of both male and female?

Certainly, female writing exists, but mainly because even writing is powerfully conditioned by the historical-cultural construction that is gender. That said, gender has an increasingly wide mesh, its rules have been relaxed, and it is more and more difficult to reconstruct what has influenced and formed us as writers. For example, I learned from the books I loved and studied, by male and female authors, and I could easily name them, but I’ve also been deeply affected by sentences whose provenance I no longer remember, whether it was male or female. The literary apprentice, in short, passes through channels that are hard to identify. So I would avoid saying that I was formed by this or that author. Above all, I would avoid saying that I was formed essentially by women’s writing, even though I very much loved and still love “House of Liars,” by Elsa Morante. We are in a period of great change, and the presentation of gender is at risk of being not only unconvincing but not really valid.

Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.

When you read a book, what do you appreciate most?

Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters.

In the book, motherhood is an enemy of writing (Lenù is so busy bringing up her daughters that she can’t get the concentration she needs). In your own experience, how is it best to write? Alone? Seeing no one? Living a secluded life? Or, on the contrary, going out a lot, drawing inspiration from meeting people, possibly being in love?

When one is in love, one writes very well. And, in general, if someone does not have experience of life, what does he or she write about? Spending one’s time focused only on writing is the ambition of an adolescent, of a sad adolescent. Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water. That said, life, when it has the force of a tidal wave, can devour the time for writing. Motherhood, in my experience, is certainly capable of sweeping away the need to write. Conceiving a child, bringing it into the world, raising it is a marvelous and painful experience that over a fairly long span of time — especially if you don’t have the money to buy the time and energy of other women — takes away space and meaning from all the rest. Naturally, if the need to write is strong, you sooner or later find an arrangement that leaves you some room. But that holds for all the fundamental experiences of life. They hit us, they overwhelm us, and then, if we don’t end up dead in a corner, we write.

 Was it hard to wake up one day thinking, “The story of Lila and Lenù is over. I’m finished with it.” Like giving birth and suddenly feeling empty in some way?

The metaphor of birth applied to literary works has never seemed convincing to me. The metaphor of weaving seems more effective. Writing is one of the prostheses we have invented to empower our body. Writing is a skill, it’s a forcing of our natural limits, it requires long training to assimilate techniques, use them with increasing expertise and invent new ones, if we find we need them. Weaving says all this well. We work for months, for years, weaving a text, the best that we are capable of at the moment. And when it’s finished, it’s there, forever itself, while we change and will change, ready to try out other weaves.

Have you possibly considered writing a sequel, or side stories (the way J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter)? The ending does allow it, doesn’t it?

No, the story of Lila and Lenù is over. But I know other stories and hope I’ll be able to write them. As for publishing them, I don’t know.

Your novel values friendship more than anything else, even more than love, which is unpredictable and can vanish. Do you value friendship in that way, in your own life?

Yes, friendship has to do with love but is less at risk of being spoiled. It’s not constantly threatened by sexual practices, by the danger that exists in the mixture of feeling and the use of bodies to give and be given pleasure. Sexual friendship is more widespread today than in the past, a game of bodies and elective affinities that tries to keep at bay both the power of love and the rite of pure sex. But with what results I don’t know.

I have been asking many writers about where they write. The most recent was Tom Wolfe, describing his desk and the colors of his office walls — blue. Could you describe the place where you write (or, if not, can you tell us about some objects that you care about and which are around when you write)?

I write anywhere. I don’t have a room of my own. I know that I’d like a bare space, with white, empty walls. But it’s more an aestheticizing fantasy than a real necessity. When I write, if it’s really going well, I soon forget where I am.

This interview originally appeared in the French newsmagazine L’Obs in January 2018. Jacob is a L’Obs staff writer covering books and is the author of a nonfiction book “La guerre littéraire” (Héloïse d’Ormesson publishing).

The New Vanguard – The New York Post

Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century..

By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai

March 5, 2018

In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.

But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.

For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.

As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.

The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.

Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).

Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.

You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal

Full article

Love Letters to Authors – Elena Ferrante – Tattered Cover

Dear Elena,

Many love you because you’re unavailable. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. You choose this in part because, as you’ve said, “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” How can we not be intrigued and seduced by you?

Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. Both grow up poor in Naples, Italy during the aftermath of WWII. The books follow the pair’s divergent paths to adulthood; one becomes upwardly mobile through education and the other struggles for autonomy and a better life in their poor neighborhood. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period. These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship.

Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. The Neapolitan Novels are about the nuances of friendship and intimacy between women as much as they’re about the epic struggle for autonomy and agency in a deeply unequal and shifting society. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences. You have written a ‘serious’ piece of literature with cover art that is unapologetically feminine.

Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be.


Posted by Cat, Deputy Editor on January 01, 2018

My Brilliant Friend   by  Elena Ferrante There’s a good chance you’ve already received recommendations for Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet from gushy friends, fervent booksellers and rhapsodic librarians. So no more excuses: Read it now, because chances are, you’ll love every soapy Italian moment. Plus, Ferrante is handling the screenplay for HBO’s forthcoming adaptation, so your Neapolitan infatuation may continue indefinitely.

Little Buddha Blog

My 2017 in fiction. neil gaiman, elena ferrante, graeme simsion and others, elena ferrante – the neapolitan novels.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name. And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. Some think it’s an autobiography, some even argue that the writer is male, which I find hard to believe having read her books. But everybody agrees that once you start reading her Neapolitan Novels, it’s impossible to break away.

The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. Two friends, the schoolgirls Elena Greko and Lila Cerullo, dream, read books and plan their way out of this little and limited community,  they were born into.

The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. She didn’t have any self-esteem, didn’t defend her personal borders, her best friend Lila manipulated her every way possible. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.

Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real – the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time – I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. Having been born to an academic family, I didn’t have to fight for the right to get an education as Elena did. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.

So the days passed, and I couldn’t get myself away from the audiobooks, listening every moment in the car, every second when my little one was asleep or played on his own on the playground. 4 books, almost 70 hours of audio, I fully immersed in the world of Elena and I realised, why it attracted so many readers. It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. The heroine has an amazing understanding of those feelings, her own and other people’s. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing.  I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it. But I am also sure that it’s a book that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. You either love it or hate it.

Literary Disco

Episode 115: my brilliant friend.

It’s been all the rage at book clubs everywhere.

We read the smash hit Italian novel from Elena Ferrante.

Julia is effusive. Tod is stoked. Rider is…argumentative.

Typical times at the Disco.

How We Eclipse Women’s Literary Brilliance With ‘Scandal’

Thursday 5:00pm

The narrative that important, authoritative female novelists ultimately owe their brilliance to men refuses to die as we close out 2017—and it’s ensnared one of our newest literary stars. The  plagiarism allegations  against  The Girls author Emma Cline, leveled by her ex-boyfriend, have set off a bruising legal battle and exposed Cline’s personal life. But more than just sordid, they’re a public attempt to silence a young and intriguing literary voice.

The initial claim was that Cline stole part of the book from her ex using spyware. But the story of the lawsuit reads to a casual observer almost like a blackmail attempt, for which Cline has just countersued. According to reports in the  New Yorker  and the  New York Times , the initial complaint—signed by lawyer and Weinstein defender David Boies—contained pages of information on Cline’s sexual habits, with the implicit threat that unless she settled for a large sum, they’d be released publicly.


“I never, in any scenario, could have imagined publishing a novel would have resulted in a bunch of lawyers combing through records of my porn habits,” Cline told the  New Yorker . In the second, post-Weinstein version of the complaint, those pages were gone, but the damage to the writer is done. Cline told the  Times  that she has missed out on priceless time and energy she’d need to write a follow-up novel, calling it “a loss I don’t know how to fully comprehend.”

But as we’re made to pore over lurid details of naked pictures and Craigslist-arranged assignation, a more important and jarring question looms: how could anyone ever think any part of that book was written by a man?

A riff on the real-life story of the Manson girls,  The Girls  was so firmly rooted in an experience of female adolescence—specifically white, female, disaffected, angry, horny, suburban ’60s adolescence. It was a book about being a certain kind of girl. It was a story about the banality of young female anger and violence. Many readers remain willing to give men authority over these themes; Jonathan Franzen’s  Purity  follows another directionless young woman into a web of violence. Jeffrey Eugenides’s  The Virgin Suicides  channels suburban female self-harm directly through the collective male gaze. Yet  The Girls  felt exciting because that gaze was so deliberately absent, its Manson figure so peripheral to the titular characters’ toxic interest in each other.


The assertion that Cline, however subtly, owes her brilliance and accolades to a male hand is recurring in literary circles whenever a woman pens powerfully—like when some critics thought Elena Ferrante was a pen name for a man, even though the Italian novelist’s Neapolitan works told a story that felt so subjective, so deeply and unquestionably female. These novels, too, were a portrait of a lifelong female friendship (or frenemy-ship), set against the backdrop of a community that experienced poverty and domestic and mob violence. In Lila and Elena’s desires for escape, fury at the world and obsession with each other, many of us who succumbed to Ferrante Fever saw an exhaustive exploration of a female psyche—not necessarily ours, but someone’s. That felt new and thrilling. And like  The Girls , which commanded a huge advance and was the the big book of its season, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels dominated online and in-person literary discussion for months, with avid woman fans taking the lead in the analysis.

So naturally, Literary Men were suspicious. For months, rumors swirled in the Italian and international press about the reclusive Ferrante’s true identity. Finally, she was doxxed by Claudio Gatti, a swaggering male journalist who claimed to have discovered her purported identity. Snooping through real estate and other holdings, he pinpointed her as Anita Raja, married to Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. He even went so far as to, again, float the idea that the books were a “collaboration” between the two writers.

He went forward with his quest despite Ferrante’s very clearly expressed wish to be left alone. “I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present,” she  once said  of her decision to remain anonymous. “To relinquish it would be very painful.” Artists and writers who are not white men continually have to fight back against a public obsession with their personal lives, a desire to link those lives with their work as a way of diminishing their talent. This is what Ferrante avoided by being anonymous, and what Gatti and others foisted onto her.


Both of these novelists achieved something rare in the literary world: books about female experiences that were critically lauded, widely read, and constantly-discussed  events . They were staking out specific women’s emotional territory as universal and worthy.

And poof! Both just happen to have been undermined by men questioning their authority and even denying their (or any woman’s) authorship. Both female authors were each then further punished by an unwanted act of privacy invasion. Those twin intrusions—the outing of Ferrante’s identity and the exposure of Cline’s sex life— both attempted to permanently put asterisks on the discussion of these women’s writing. In both cases, it remains unclear whether the work will eventually surpass the “scandal” in people’s minds—many readers have vowed not to think about Ferrante’s unmasking or acknowledge it. But at least temporarily and at least for some readers, Cline is reduced to the ex-girlfriend of the guy suing her. Ferrante became the wife of another novelist.

All this recalls another agonizing literary moment from recent years: In 2014, novelist Jaqueline Woodson was called to the stage to receive her National Book Award for her masterful verse-novel about her own family,  Brown Girl Dreaming . After her speech, her friend and presenter Daniel Handler made a crude racist joke. “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from,” Woodson later  wrote .

Clearly, the elevation of diverse stories to a position of centrality in literature still provokes backlash, even from friends in the form of a “joke.” The message sent to other writers whose subjects and identities have previously been marginalized is that even if you do succeed, someone will be waiting to humiliate or discredit you, or simply shrink your stature. And even though readers have rallied around all three these writers in the face of insults, the effect is still discouraging. Because many serious artists want, in Ferrante’s  words , “To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.” A stupid joke, a cruel lawsuit, an unwanted journalistic investigation—all these acts do their part to yank that freedom away.

Italian Authors in Search of Identity, Part II

By Valerie Waterhouse

Published on October 5, 2017

Recent authors have made Pirandello’s themes so central that the search for, or absence of, identity have become a defining characteristic of ‘Italian-ness’. Famously, Elena Ferrante has annulled her own authorial identity: ‘Ferrante’ is a cypher for an anonymous writer – possibly a translator, possibly married to novelist Domenico Starnone, possibly a stand-in for both halves of the couple – or perhaps we are all on the wrong track? The absence of a public presence frees Ferrante from ‘the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book,’ she explained to  Vanity Fair .

In an article for  The Guardian,  Ferrante  wrote  about Jane Austen, who also published her novels anonymously. ‘Who wrote  Sense and Sensibility ? Who invented Marianne and Elinor and their mother and the many female characters who appear, disappear, reappear?’ she asked. She might well have been commenting on her own best-selling novels: The Neapolitan Quartet. Their focus is the six-decade-long friendship between Elena/Lenuccia/Lenù and Raffaella/Lina/Lila, whose changing names and the similarities between their nomenclatures (Lenù/Lina) underline the impossibility of pinning down identity across time and space.  My Brilliant Friend , the first in the series, begins with Lina/Lila’s disappearance: ‘She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life she had left behind. Everything, including her computer, photos of herself, birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts, had gone.’ Characters stretch their boundaries so far across the course of the novels, that they are almost impossible to define. The most extreme example is the women’s friend, Alfonso, who undergoes a male to female transition so complete that he almost transforms into Lina. And yet, like Italian identity, each personality displays seemingly immutable defining traits. Elena is hard-working and studious and efficient; Lina’s razor-sharp intelligence never fades.

The New York Times Style Magazine

Is the age of the artistic recluse over.

(…. ) The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.

Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.

And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “ The Remains of the Day ,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.

The Guardian

Elena ferrante’s naples – a photo essay.

We follow in the (fictional) footsteps of the heroines of My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, into the alleyways, gritty apartment blocks and piazzas of this energetic and fascinating city

by Sophia Seymour. Photographs: Giuseppe Di Vaio

Lenù and Lila, the fictional protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, forge their friendship in a deprived area of Naples, just east of the cacophonous central station. The books follow the girls’ fraught relationship as they navigate the distinct social and economic divides of the city, both railing against and succumbing to the expectations of women as they struggle to be defined by something other than the violence and poverty of their post-war upbringing.

A ground-floor apartment in a working class area of Naples.

  • A ground-floor apartment in a working class area of Naples.

Ferrante maps out in vivid detail every corner of the unnamed “neighbourhood” where they grow up, yet when the characters move into the rest of the city she is meticulous in naming each street and square, allowing Naples to take centre stage as the stories develop. In this way, the success of the novels has seen an unprecedented number of readers from across the world make a pilgrimage to Naples, in search of the raw and gritty side of the city that has traditionally kept visitors away.

The area where the girls grow up is based on working class Rione Luzzatti, which has hardly changed since the 1950s and does seemingly little to defy the city’s much-maligned reputation as a crumbling rogue governed by intimidating forces. However, those intent on discovering the stomping ground of the brilliant heroines will need to abandon preconceptions, ignore warnings of lawless, unruly Neapolitans, and head deep into the underbelly, to the city’s scarcely explored areas. It is here that the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the city reveal themselves, and the real magic of Naples is to be discovered.

Porta Capuana is one of Naples’ old city gates, built by the Aragonese dynasty in 1484.

  • Porta Capuana is one of Naples’ old city gates, built by the Aragonese dynasty and dating back to 1484.

To follow in the footsteps of characters in the four novels, head out of the historic centre on a Dante-esque trip into the Neapolitan underworld. Pass through the vast Aragonese city gates of Porta Capuana, now sitting alone in a square off Via Carbonara, and head into the pulsating heart of O’ Buvero street market.

Naples street markets are a place to experience the energy of the city

  • Naples street markets are a place to experience the energy of the city.

O’ Buvero is a human jumble of activity weaving through the decaying 15th-century palaces of Via Sant’Antonio Abate. It is here that the energy of the city’s street life can truly be experienced, resonating through the neighbourhood and into the cramped flats and echoing stairwells.

O’ Buvero market, Via Sant’Antonio Abate, whose the layout has not changed since the 15th century

As you walk through the alleyways, it is impossible not to project the community of characters described in the book on to the market sellers. Stop to buy a bunch of tiny  piennolo  tomatoes from the equivalent of the Ada Cappuccio character who ran the fruit stall in Ferrante’s Naples, or watch as an Enzo Scanno equivalent loads crates of produce, like Jenga blocks, on to his cart to take back and sell in the neighbourhood.

View from behind the market, with the church of Sant’Antonio Abate in the background.

  • A view of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate from behind the market.

If you were wondering where to find intimidating Solara brother types, striking illicit deals, look out for the men manning blackmarket cigarette stalls, their cartons neatly arranged on tablecloths so that they can be removed in one quick motion at the sight of police.

An illegal cigarette stall.

Deeper into the market, lurid insults filter from above, hurled from window to window by women as they lace the streets with laundry, just like Melina and Lidia squabbling over Donato Sarratore in the first book, My Brilliant Friend. Deals are thrashed out in thick Neapolitan dialect, while Vespas arrive loaded with boxes of broccoli-like  friarelli , grown on the slopes of Vesuvius. Through a half-open door you may spot an old boy painting the colourful price tags that decorate the market stalls. Nearby may be a woman leaning out of her street-level apartment, cigarette in hand, waiting for a lighter to be lowered by rope in a basket from a floor above.

Pasquale’s family has been making price tags for the markets across Naples for three generations.

  • Old world charm: Pasquale’s family has been making price tags for the markets across Naples for three generations. Right; passing a light with a basket.

Exiting the market, up Via Benedetto Cairoli to Corso Garibaldi, you pass a traditional  acquafrescaio  kiosk, selling sulphuric Telese from Vesuvius, known for its healing and aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps Elena Greco was under the influence of this potent volcanic liquid when she first laid her lustful eyes on the womaniser Nino Sarratore at the nearby high school.

The infamous ‘stradone’, south-west of the Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood.

  • The infamous ‘stradone’, south-west of the Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood.

Take a taxi down the wide Via Taddeo da Sessa – the  stradone  of the books – with the financial district on the left, and leave behind the market and enter a seemingly less hospitable corner of the city, Rione Luzzatti. Silent women stare out of the barred windows of apartments in the four-storey Fascist-era housing blocks. The flats face on to shared courtyards, lined with grates into basements like the one where Lila threw Lenù’s doll, Tina. Occasionally, the stillness is punctured by schoolchildren tumbling out of the concrete elementary school on Via Marino Freccia for lunch, or the fishmonger whistling down the vacant avenues in his three-wheeled Piaggio.

Acqua Telese bought from the Acquafrescaio Kiosk on the corner of the market

  • Telese mineral water on sale at the  acquafrescaio  kiosk on the corner of the market.

Children run home after school: the elementary school Lenù and Lila would have attended is on the left and the parish church is behind them.

  • Children run home after school. The elementary school Lenù and Lila would have attended is on the left and the parish church is behind them.

It’s worth spending some time exploring, however, as there are a number of reputable establishments around the central square. The basement Pasticciello bakery (Via Vesuvio 3C) has been attracting outsiders to the neighbourhood long before Ferrante’s books came out. It is famous for  pagnutiello , a typical Neapolitan street snack made from eggs, ham and cheese, baked in crunchy bread and sold for €1. Signor Spagnuolo – Gigliola’s father – would have baked these as a warm lunch for workmen at the nearby central station.

Il Pasticciello Bakery, Rione Luzzatti.

  • Il Pasticciello bakery, Rione Luzzatti. Below: Lucia and her assistant cracking eggs in the kitchen.

Lucia and her assistant cracking eggs in the kitchen of Il Pasticciello

Down an espresso at Bar Pariso (Via Beato Leonardo Murialdo, on the corner of Piazza Francesco Coppola ), alongside men who, according to Ferrante, spend their time “between gambling losses and troublesome drunkness”. Try a  vino sfuso  – local aglianico wine dispensed straight from the barrel in a plastic cup – from Marco’s slither of a shop next to the tobacconists on Via Buonocore. Wander through the public gardens where Lila would have taught Elena her Latin verbs and past the Sacra Famiglia parish church, originally built in central Naples in the 15th century before being transported to the  rione  brick by brick, when the area needed a place of worship.

Il Bar Pariso on the corner of the neighbourhood square.

  • Il Bar Pariso on the corner of the neighbourhood square.

If the bakery’s  pagnutiello  has your mouth watering, follow the  stradone  out of the neighbourhood and through the dark, infamous “tunnel with its three entrances” on Via Gianturco where Lila and Lenù skip school and first attempt to leave the neighbourhood to go and see the sea.

The infamous tunnel on Via Gianturco, where Lila and Elena first attempt to leave the neighbourhood.

  • The infamous tunnel on Via Gianturco, where Lila and Elena first attempt to leave the neighbourhood.

Turn right into the slighly more upmarket Case Nuove district for lunch at  Pizzeria Carmnella . The  pizzaiolo , Vincenzo Esposito, has invented a pizza to celebrate Elena Ferrante, mirroring the dishes served at a traditional Neapolitan Sunday lunch: ragú simmered for 24 hours, ricotta,  fiordilatte  mozzarella from Agerola on the Amalfi peninsula, grated parmesan and fresh basil.

Pizzeria Carmnella

  • Pizzeria Carmnella: pizza margherita straight from the woodburning oven.

Pizza margherita straight from the woodburning oven on the left in Pizzeria Carmnella.

Not all of Ferrante’s bildungsroman is based in poor neighbourhoods. The life of Elena Greco reaches into the privileged pockets of Via Tasso and the Chiaia district too (as well as to Florence and Milan). Her books expose the Manichean elements of the city, the contrast of lightness and darkness, poverty and wealth, opportunity and hopelessness. So when, after lunch, you hurl across the city in a taxi to where the Solaras sold Lila’s shoes in an upmarket boutique in Piazza Dei Martiri, it feels like crossing a border, moving through tangible social and economic divides.

Ferrante’s characters are astonished by the stark contrast in daily life for richer folk, the orderly manner of things compared with the menacing chaos of the impoverished neighbourhoods. Lenù’s impressions of the Chiaia residents is that they “seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of air”. The change in atmosphere is tangible under the central marble column surrounded by sculpted lions, in the square lined with elegant shops.

Local Neapolitan men.

Follow the line of boutiques up to the top of Via Chiaia and the lavish Gambrinus coffee house on the corner of Piazza Trento e Trieste, where (unlike Ferrante) writers such as Hemingway and Neruda could afford to watch the world go by. As you pass by the familiar chain stores and well-heeled gentry, beware: a longing may set in for the raw and pulsating Naples to the east.

Gambrinus Coffeehouse has been in Piazza Trieste e Trento since 1860, and has always been a meeting point for intellectuals and musicians performing in the San Carlo Opera House opposite. Gigliola drags Elena Greco here for ‘all sorts of things, both salty and sweet’ when they bump into each other on Via Toledo, in the final book.

  • Gambrinus Coffeehouse has been in Piazza Trieste e Trento since 1860, and has always been a meeting point for intellectuals, and for musicians performing in the San Carlo Opera House opposite.

As the writing in the Neapolitan novels attests, Naples is a city of vivid contradictions that summon conflicting emotions of love, loathing, shock and wonder. Searching for Lila Cerullo, the missing protagonist, in the less wealthy areas of the city means encountering Neapolitans who will go out of their way to disprove any negative reputation with the sort of warm, sociable and humble spirit associated with having always felt like the underdog. On the flip side, one can’t but be suspicious of invisible dark forces at play, nepotism and raging inequality. Wandering through the market and into the streets where Lenù and Lila’s friendship blossomed, and crisscrossing the city’s starkly divided neighbourhoods, is like reading the book itself: charged, consuming, and liable to start a lifelong love affair.

Sophia Seymour is a Naples based documentary maker, writer and the founder of  Looking for Lila . She curates tours, shoots and events using the Ferrante novels as a frame to explore the city

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