Earlier this week when I took my Yarn Along photo, I had read about 90% of My Brilliant Friend. I had already started to warm to it after feeling disappointed with the first half of the novel. When I scrolled back to find the cover photo that I used in my Yarn Along photo, I found that this novel features a character list prior to Chapter 1. One of my main complaints during the first half of the novel was the fact that many of the characters seemed interchangeable. This problem disappeared later, but I think I would have enjoyed the book much more if I had known the character list was there. I suppose this is an occupational hazard for those of us who (sometimes) read on Kindles. Kindle books generally open on page 1, and it does not always occur to me to scroll back to look at epigraphs or at other material, like this character list.
To me this series of four novels, called Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, has been almost obnoxiously hyped over the last year or so, and I was surprised when two friends who read said they had never heard of them. I thought about it and realized that I couldn’t remember when or how I learned about these books. At the library? Maybe. Promotional email from Amazon? This is always possible, but I can’t say I remember for sure. The only thing I could say for sure is that I had never talked to a single real person who had read them. I guess this is how reading recommendations happen in the Age of the Algorithm; books just show up in your brain, fully marketed and cued to the beginning of Chapter 1.
Almost immediately I recognized a connection between this novel and the stories of Alice Munro. Munro often writes about the world of her Great-Depression childhood on her father’s perennially-failing fox farm. The setting of My Brilliant Friend is more prosaic – a working-class neighborhood in Naples in the decades following World War II. In Munro’s stories about life on the fox farm, two specters cast shade over the protagonist: poverty and the possibility of parental rejection. This same darkness is present in My Brilliant Friend, though it took me a while to place it. “Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection,” Ferrante writes. “With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.” Notice how the vocabulary of childhood illnesses, industrial accidents, and 20th-century warfare mingle in this list in no particular order. While Munro’s child protagonists are terrorized by eventualities, Ferrante’s live under the shadow of past atrocities: namely, of Mussolini’s Italy.
When I was frustrated with the first half of this novel, it was because its characters felt opaque. Its protagonist, named Elena like her creator, is clearly defined enough. I wasn’t bothered by young Elena’s narration – in fact, it was this narration that first made me think of Munro. Elena’s friend Lila – whom I assumed until very close to the end was the “brilliant friend” of the title – is also well drawn. But the rest of their friends, who get a lot of page time, seemed interchangeable. Pasquale, Enzo, Stefano, Antonio, and Alfredo all blended into one another, and the intensity of Elena’s friendship with Lila left me somewhat baffled about why there had to be any more female characters in the novel at all; surely Elena and Lila provided enough “Venus” energy to power the novel through to its end. The Solara brothers stand out a bit because they are wealthy and ostentatious and aggressive. Throughout the first half of the novel I was just baffled: why introduce so many characters, give them so much time on the page, and develop them so little?
Then I started to get it. Early in the novel we’re introduced to a character named Don Achille. At first I thought he was a Boo Radley figure; the children in town were taught never to go anywhere near him but also never to be disrespectful to him. “We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed toward the Caraccis (Don Achille’s family) and transmitted to us,” Ferrante writes, “but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings.” Shortly after he is introduced, Don Achille is killed, and the father of one of Elena’s friends is sent to prison for murder. As a reader, I was just as baffled as Elena was (which was the point – duh!), and my own understanding of Don Achille’s relationship with others in the town kept pace with hers.
Elena’s neighborhood is not a place in which education (and its perceived corollary: truth) is valued. Lila is the smartest child in her elementary school, but her parents take her out of school after the fifth grade to help around the house and around her father’s shoemaking shop. We’re aware that her household becomes violent at times – but this too is opaque. Elena’s parents – after some grumbling – allow her to go to middle school and then on to high school, which is regarded as at best a luxury and at worst a sinister place rivaling the tree in the Garden of Eden as a locus of treasonous knowledge. The fact is that the adults in Elena’s neighborhood are afraid of truth. The social structure of this time and place is oriented around ignoring and burying truths about what the occupants of the neighborhood did to survive the war. When the truth does start to come to light, Lila cries out, “Who are the Nazi Fascists? Who are the monarchists? What’s the black market?” Later, Elena reflects that the adults in her community “thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it.” At this point in the novel, Lila’s family’s distaste for the wealthy Solaras starts to make more sense, as does the killing of Don Achille.
I do think I would have enjoyed this first half of this novel more if the characters surrounding Elena and Lila were more fully developed, but I think I understand why Ferrante wrote this book in the way she did. Elena’s neighbors are just as opaque to her as they are to me – and since she is a child immersed in her familiar surroundings, it makes sense that this should be so. In some way, the plot of this novel emerges out of Elena’s ongoing struggle to understand the invisible forces that drive her community. The novel’s characterization deepens as Elena ages – and of course there is nothing wrong with that. It’s the result of a rigorous use of the first person narration. And even more so: it’s something Alice Munro would do.