For several years Tony has been raving about this book and the other two in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novel series and there is a fourth about to come out. I'm very happy to have three more to go.
Lila is introduced to us when the narrator Elena receives a phone call from Lila's son who says she had disappeared two weeks previously. At age sixty-six Lila took all traces of her existence with her, as she had told Elena she would do three decades before. Elena's anger at this extravagant act moves her take out her computer and begin to write.
Born in 1944, the two girls grew up in a wretchedly poor area of Naples. Everyone spoke in "dialect" rather than Italian, violence was everywhere, and no one had a concept of schooling beyond the elementary level. We get to know the families in the neighborhood: the sad gambler Signor Peluso who murdered Don Achille, Donato Sarratore, heartbreaker and railroad worker-poet, and Enzo who sells vegetables around the neighborhood in a horse-drawn wagon. Ferrante brings them alive to us.
For Elena her friend Lila was the most important figure: as a child Lila was the worst behaved, the smartest, the one who was always three steps ahead. Although Lila was unable to take the exam to go to middle school, she kept up with studies and when Elena fell behind in Latin, they studied together. Elena's view of their relationship is fraught:
She had begun to study Greek even before I went to high school? She had done it on her own, while I hadn't even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?
When they were in their early teens, the neighborhood began to be somewhat more prosperous and initiatives began to flourish: "In other words everything was quivering, arching upward as if to change its characteristics, not to be known by the accumulated hatreds, tensions, ugliness but, rather, to show a new face." A few young men were able to buy cars.
As Lila grew into her middle teens, she changed from the skinny stick to a desirable young woman. She attracted the attention of Marcello, who laid claim to her by buying a television that neighbors came to watch every evening. Lila was not impressed. Stefano, son of the murdered Don Achille, had became a successful grocer and claimed her attention. With Stefano she moved into a different league from Elena and other friends who rode the metro and the bus, went to the parish cinema, or danced at a friend's house.
That evening it became evident that Lila was changing her circumstances. In the days, the months, she became a young woman who imitated the models in the fashion magazines, the girls on television, the ladies she had seen walking on Via Chiaia. When you saw her, she gave off a glow that seemed a violent slap in the face of the poverty of the neighborhood.
The day of her wedding, Lila asked Elena to spend time with her as she dressed. She wondered if she was making a mistake by getting married and said to Elena,
"Whatever happens, you'll go on studying."
"Two more years: then I'll get my diploma and I'm done."
"No, don't ever stop: I"ll give you the money, you should keep studying."
I gave a nervous laugh, then said, "Thanks but at a certain point school is over."
"Not for you: you're my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls."
I look forward to the next installment in the vibrant stories of the two women who were almost my contemporaries.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, trans. Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2012, 331 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.