Published in 2011, My Brilliant Friend is enigmatic writer Elena Ferrante’s fifth book and the first of her internationally successful tetralogy Neapolitan Novels.
Read and discussed everywhere – in noisy kitchens as well as crowded university classrooms – Ferrante’s books have been analyzed, devoured, and finally turned into a tv series produced by HBO, in 2018. It takes more than mere luck to make a bestseller; in the case of My Brilliant Friend, what has played a key role first and foremost is the balance between emotional charge, plot, and narrative pace. Ferrante’s books contain all the features of the great popular narrative: simultaneously dense and readable, profound and light, constantly overturning situations, revealing the secret backgrounds of the characters, adding event to event without respite.
Drawing on a diverse range of influences, from La Storia by Elsa Morante to Christa Wolff’s novels, Ferrante interweaves the main story – the life of two friends – with many others, creating new scenes, environments, and characters, constantly enriching the narrative. Elena and Lila, the protagonists, face dramas and challenges over the course of over fifty years. My Brilliant Friend possesses the ingredients of a family saga, and this element leads to the second reason behind its huge success. The novel begins in the fifties, in a post-war Napoli – an era in which Italy is recovering from a great trauma – and ends nearly in the present day. This temporal evolution gives My Brilliant Friend a sense of historical progression and verticality: the reader follows and retraces a path of healing and affirmation that involves the protagonists as well as the whole of Italy. Thus, Ferrante’s saga has a unifying, foundational power, the same as novels like Manzoni’s The Betrothed or Balzac’s Comedie Humaine.
Lastly, the uncertainty behind Ferrante’s identity – no one knows who she really is – not only feeds curiosity and speculations but also frees My Brilliant Friend from every attempt to pigeonhole it as “genre literature”.