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La dolce vita

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is the first in the Neapolitan Quartet. It is a brutal, unfrilly depiction of Italian culture from the 1950s to the present day

Geraldine Gardner

Geraldine Gardner


01635 886684

La dolce vita

There has been a lot of publicity about the Neapolitan Quartet of books because, after the fourth and final tome, The Story of the Lost Child, was published, there was a frenzy of activity trying to discover who the mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante really is.

Whoever she is, having read the first two books in the series, she must be writing from first-hand knowledge. Whatever you may think of the two central protagonists, Elena and Lila – more of them later – this is a punchy in-your-face portrait of macho Italy.

The first book, My Brilliant Friend, paints a colourful and no-holds barred portrait of 1950s Naples. The themes of family, the role of the patriarch and matriarch are brutally laid out. The whiff of the Mafia is ever-present and there is an undercurrent
of menace as the young men lay claim to their women and tempers can flare at any moment.

The story is told in flashback by Elena, after the opening chapter, set in the present day, explains that her now 60-year-old lifelong friend Lila has gone missing – walked out on her life and disappeared.

We are taken back to the moment when the two girls first meet as they play with their respective dolls and the tempestuous friendship that ensues. It seems that one cannot function without the other and as the girls become teenagers the scene is set for a roller-coaster of a relationship.

The key thing is that at the end you are left wondering which one is the ‘brilliant friend’ of the title. In their younger years
they compete with each other to be top of the class and it seems that Lila is always a step ahead of Elena.

Then it all changes when Lila seemingly loses interest, gives up or just decides that her family duties are more important and she needs to secure her father and brother’s future by helping them build their shoe shop.

This she does through her choice of husband – she gets married at just 16 – and it seems as if she holds all the cards. But her new spouse is one step ahead of her and even on her wedding day she realises the mistake she had made in thinking she was in charge.

Elena, meanwhile, carries on with her studies. In her early teens, she is encouraged by Lila, who although she has given up on school, urges Elena on by stealth.

But boyfriends and growing up are a constant competition between the two, making for a rather unsettling bond and leaving Elena wondering just how true a friend either is to the other.

These books seem to have the Marmite effect on many. My fellow book club members did not like Elena or Lila and found the books heavy-going. Others who I have spoken to have said how vibrant they are and that they find the complex relationship between the two women compelling.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I will definitely perservere with the books. Neither Elena nor Lila are particularly
likeable but I don’t think that’s the point. The strength of these books lies in the depiction of the community. It gives you
a real sense of the place and the changes, which affect the role of women, the city of Naples and Italy.

Lila never leaves Naples, it is Elena who experiences the world, but she is always drawn back to her friend. Just as I too
feel drawn to find out what fate has in store for these two extraordinary women.

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