Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: My Brilliant Friend & the rest of the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I almost gave up on the first book of the series about ten percent of the way in. It starts slow: character sketches of Neapolitans. This man was a fascist, was feared by the neighbourhood, and made his money on the black market. This woman loved a married man and went crazy when he left her. The stories were all so disconnected, and I didn't get the sense that I "got" the characters. The language was simple. The story-telling was straightforward and yet so incredibly detailed. Sometimes I wondered why they mattered at all. How could this exegesis on a single elementary school exam possibly be so important that the narrator dedicates this many pages to it? I continued reading only because I had the audiobook, and the meditative cadence suited my mood on a late-night run.

I'm so glad I finished the first book. I'd intended this review to be a review of only the first instalment, My Brilliant Friend, but I devoured the next three novels over just a few weeks, and when I tried to type up my thoughts, I realized it didn't make sense to review My Brilliant Friend as a standalone novel. The series is very much one single story - indeed the first and second book both end on the very same days their sequels start. 

In a way, I felt like this story makes many other tales about the inheritance of trauma obsolete. Through Elena Grecco's own experience as a novelist, we learn that if you haven't done the work to understand people, and the way their environment and their choices influence their lives, it's just exploitative or navel gazy or moralizing or posturing as worldly. Formative experiences can't be captured in a few flashback scenes - how people recover or respond to their hurt, and how they come to understand the ways they've been hurt, is often as impactful for how a character is shaped.

The story was a perfect character study of the two women. On the one hand I feel like I have never read a novel that so perfectly captures what it feels like to be me before. Elena's thought patterns, particularly her self criticizing, her admiration of her role models, and her introspection, were so like my own. It felt almost intrusive. I've felt the same complicated pull of wanting to leave home and explore the world, then, having left, wanting to return. I've also felt dazzled by a room full of smart people talking about enticing politics ideas. I've felt the same type of love for a friend - admiration, but also competition. I felt uncomfortably betrayed when Lenu began her affair with Nino; he was so obviously a jerk and not worth her affections, and I would never do this. At one point, Lenu asks herself if she was just another woman to him, and would be strung along (or something to that affect) and I, in my frustrating screamed exasperatedly "yes!!" - this elicited a surprised look from the person I passed on my run.

On the other hand, I feel like there's a paradoxical sort of lesson here: that it is impossible to adequately portray the fullness of a human being using words on a page. Lila is painted through Lenu's eyes, somehow so real, and yet also unknowable. 

I loved the political threads. The union-building plot at Lila's sausage factory was a stand out arc. I particularly loved that politics was woven throughout, a constant backdrop in conversations and decisions and relationships. It felt very real. I wondered a little what the author's persuasions are - socialist/communist I think, but she plays a little coy about how she envisions it fitting into the world outside of a disapproval of guerrilla violence and assassination, I think.

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