My Brilliant Friend by Elsa Ferrante
I resisted this book at first because none of the reviews I read were particularly compelling. But after hearing an interview with a scholar of Italian literature, I gave it a whirl. It turns out that this book is extraordinarily compelling. More than that — it is mesmerizing.
Ferrante describes the relationship between two girls in a way that every woman will recognize from her own childhood. The narrator isn’t really sure she likes her friend, nor is she really sure her friend likes her. And her friend does not often do anything to inspire anyone to be her friend in the first place. In fact, her friend is kind of a jerk. The two girls are resigned to their friendship, whether they enjoy it or not. This shared burden binds them tighter as time goes on.
The seemingly unwanted friendship allows Ferrante to explore the inner turmoil of young girls. The adult world is inscrutable, governed by invisible pressures and shadowed by events from the far distant past. The protagonist slowly realizes that relationships among grown-ups follow rules that she and her partner-in-friend will understand only when the time is right. Until then, they watch in fascination. And practice various solutions to their relatives’ suffering, hoping to find an answer, even if by accident.
Ferrante also portrays their particular neighborhood in post-war Naples as a closed world. The children cannot see out of the neighborhood, and they appear never to leave it. When they occasionally push the fringes of their small collection of streets, nothing good comes from it. They incubate in the neighborhood, to emerge from it only in later volumes of Ferrante’s quartet.
The story that results from this friendship in this neighborhood is the truth about little girls. And any artist who manages to convey truth gets an A in my book.