To say that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series has been getting a lot of buzz lately would be putting it lightly. I recently saw one meme renaming her first novel “The One Everyone is Reading on the Subway.” This level of hubbub and mass appeal generally makes me wary, but I couldn’t resist at least testing the waters, particularly when this woman writer is being so loudly lauded.
“My Brilliant Friend” is the first of the four Neapolitan novels released in rapid succession between 2011 and 2014 by Italian writer Elena Ferrante. It is allegedly a revelatory look at a life-long friendship between two girls from Naples, hard-scrabble Lila and tepid Elena. Though both girls show early academic promise, it is clear from Elena’s perspective that Lila is the one with a true gift, with a fire and an irrepressible will.
“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. … 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 … the characteristic of absolute determination. Whether she was gripping the tricolor 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.”
Throughout “My Brilliant Friend” Elena reveals herself as Lila’s foil. Where Lila is a gifted autodidact, Elena studies for hours on end in order to shine in school. Where Elena yearns for acceptance and affection, Lila spits and spurns those who look her way.
When Ferrante, through the voice of Elena, poetically describes the fire and ferocity at the heart of women, I found myself disconcerted and, even, disappointed.
“As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs. They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had not end.”
Where was this fire in Elena? For the entirety of the novel, I felt that Elena was so muted, so underplayed despite being the story’s voice, that I couldn’t truly envision her. In truth, the epic friendship at the heart of the story seemed superficial, cold, and shallow. This wasn’t a story of two girls growing up deeply connected; it was the story of one girl orbiting as a distant satellite to the other. It was more one-way obsession than a mutual attachment.
Perhaps Ferrante meant for Elena and Lila to represent the two halves of a Neapolitan woman – Elena is nondescript, quiet, acquiescent, while Lila is constantly asserting herself, rejecting the expectations of others. Whatever the intent, I was disappointed in the lack of heat, the muted colors of “My Brilliant Friend.” I would be willing to try its successors, but I can quite easily bide my time.