Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

 "My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together--only together--we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power."
I felt like a terrible woman/feminist for not loving this book right away. The hype was strong. Jhumpa Lahiri (who I'm obsessed with) called it and its sequels an "unconditional masterpiece," which one could interpret as at least a moderately positive review. I was ready to be hooked and poised to buy all four books at once, hunker down, and read them straight through. That is not quite what happened.

Mostly I was annoyed with the protagonist, Lenù, who spends the vast majority of the book idolizing her friend Lila and agonizing over the ways in which she considers herself to be inferior. Part of that annoyance was probably discomfort at how accurately Ferrante portrays teenage angst and insecurity, but part of it was genuine frustration with the characters. Lenù, who consistently outsmarts her male classmates in school and attracts her fair share of romantic attention (including repeatedly from a boy she claims to be in love with), seems incapable of going more than a page or two without reverting to insecurity about Lila: does she value their friendship? Is she smarter? Prettier? Lila, meanwhile, doesn't care about anyone but herself. Over the course of the novel, she arrives in that terrifyingly powerful place between girlhood and womanhood when girls wield the most power. She manipulates all the family members, friends, and male admirers that she doesn't alienate and seems utterly unworthy of Lenù's affection. It was believable, but infuriating.

Ferrante writes beautifully; her descriptions are haunting, and her ability to articulate in excruciating detail the pain of adolescence and the everyday violence of impoverished communities is impressive. Lenù's acne ebbs and flows (usually perfectly echoing her self confidence); she is in the process of discovering the fallibility of her parents, of realizing how poor and miserable her neighborhood is, of harnessing the power of her voice and thoughts. Around her men are murdered, girls are raped, boys beaten to a pulp, and she tries to make sense of it as best she can. Aspects of her experience felt so real that I couldn't help but empathize, but then she would lapse into another paragraph about Lila's perfection and I lost it again.

I haven't decided yet if I want to read the next book. I care just enough about the characters that I want to see what happens (and really, I want to see if Lila gets the epic downfall she deserves), and I enjoyed the writing, but I don't know how much more Lila adulation I can stand.

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