Mrs. Asher was my middle school English teacher. She had us diagram sentences and write numerous book reports. Novels, she said, are based on one of three themes: man against nature, man against man, man against himself. Simply put, novels are about conflict and how one deals with it.
Conflict often occurs because of difficulties in interrelating, a skill most of us are not properly taught when young. Too bad because our childhood follows us around wherever we go. No book exemplifies this more than Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the story of the lifelong friendship between Elena and Lila.
Elena and Lila are growing up in a 1950s Neopolitan slum surrounded by poverty and the violent emotions it produces including that of jealousy. Lila is jealous of Elena’s doll so she throws it down a grate. Elena retaliates by throwing down Lila’s doll as well. Then Lila challenges Elena to go down into the basement to retrieve the dolls. The basement belongs to the fearsome Don Achille and Elena is scared to do so. But, provoked by Lila, she has no choice and descends into darkness. Unfortunately, the dolls can’t be found. Or so it seems.
Throughout her life, Elena feels constantly challenged by Lila. But the conflict Mrs. Asher was talking about is not between Elena and Lila. In always using Lila as a reference and measuring stick, Elena’s real conflict is with herself.
A challenge we all have is that of learning to interrelate with ourselves. Because the rapport we create with our own being influences the rapport we have with the rest of the world.
Elena Ferrante is a magnificent storyteller and her talent has provoked some hostility from Italian literary critics–mainly males who want to categorize her as a pop romance novelist. Misogynist minds cannot understand the pleasure we women have in reading about people and the power of emotions.
And that Ferrante avoids the spotlight, makes no public appearances and has earned the adjective “mysterious” makes her critics even more uncomfortable.
My Brillant Friend is the first of the Neopolitan tetralogy by Ferrante. I highly recommend all four especially to those who suffer from insomnia!