First published on 14 Aug 2013. Updated on 14 Aug 2013.
Everybody remembers their closest teenage friendship, but no one retells it with quite as much scathing honesty as Elena Ferrante. Expertly translated by Ann Goldstein from its original Italian, My Brilliant Friend tells the teenage experience – angst, pimples, parent-hating and all in between – with vivacious, urgent detail that is so candid it hurts.
The story begins in the cellar of an old apartment block on the outskirts of Naples in the late 1950s, where two skinny girls in grubby dresses are up to no good. One of them is Elena, the narrator; uncertain and dependent; and the other is Lila, brazen, vicious, and brilliant. As children they are inseparable, but a permanent chasm divides them when Elena is allowed to go to middle school and Lila is denied an education. Caught up in the family feuds, dance halls and dramas of their small neighbourhood, the girls never lose sight of their shared dream of rising above poverty.
What follows is far more than a simple coming-of-age story, and it is certainly not written for teenagers. Ferrante’s prose is deeply passionate and detailed, crafting a story of a relationship in which suffering and joy go hand-in-hand. Elena is constantly jealous of Lila, because, naturally, top marks in school mean nothing when your best friend has a boyfriend. You’ll groan with empathy for Elena and her unformed feelings, as the urge to possess, to protect, to hurt, and to become, her brilliant friend threatens to overcome her.
It is fitting that this story ends on the shores of adulthood, on the day of a wedding that will change everything. Thinking they’d find answers to unanswered girlhood questions, Elena, Lila, and the readers, have to face the secret truth that growing up doesn’t solve anything. We may never want to be 16 again, but to go back, just for a few hours, is breathtaking. At times, you will be forced to put the book down, close your eyes, and feel the past rushing in.
Text Publishing, $29.99. July 2013