The world is a profound and unchartered place when you’re a young teenager. Relationships are difficult to navigate and you move like a changing and persistent breeze underneath your own front door, trying to find a way – any way – into the hallways of who you are and of friendship. Somehow, Elena Ferrante has captured this elusive breeze and painted a picture of Elena and Lila’s friendship that is so real you’d swear you were inside Elena’s mind. Ferrante allows Elena to hold nothing back, not even the darkness of her self-doubt and jealousy. At times I felt I was leaning against the wall, glass against ear, cheeks blushing with the closeness of it all.
Ferrante delicately expresses the nuances of love, jealousy, self-doubt and awe that characterize Elena and Lila’s personalities and friendship. Their conflicting love and envy is tied up in their own achievement, attraction and physical beauty. You could ask, ‘which one is the Brilliant Friend’? Elena is a brilliantly dedicated academic but Lila – that Lila – she has an incandescence that hours of study under a lamplight could never shine on Elena.
“What do I have? I answered that I had school, a privilege she had lost forever. That is my wealth, I tried to convince myself . . . I displayed my successes as if they were my mother’s silver bracelet, and yet I didn’t know what to do with that virtuosity” (259).
Ferrante uses ‘what Lila says’ to introduce philosophical (and sometimes political) concepts; concepts that Elena enthusiastically regurgitates to teachers and love-interests. The most interesting of these is Lila’s ‘dissolving margins’ beautifully described on page 176:
“It was – she told me – as if, on the night of a full moon over the sea, the intense black mass of a storm advanced across the sky, swallowing every light, eroding the circumference of the moon’s circle, and disfiguring the shining disk, reducing it to its true nature of rough insensate material. Lila imagined, she saw, she felt – as if it were true – her brother break . . . There, amid the violent explosions, in the cold, in the smoke that burned the nostrils and the strong odor of sulfur, something violated the organic structure of her brother, exercising over him a pressure so strong that it broke down his outlines, and the matter expanded like a magma, showing her what he was truly made of . . . as Rino moved, as he expanded around himself, every margin collapsed and her own margins, too, became softer and more yielding. She struggled to maintain control, and succeeded…” (176).
The blurb doesn’t lie: Ferrante is “one of Italy’s greatest storytellers”.
Thanks to my brilliant friend, Katharine (of ‘Letters to a Friend‘), for recommending this book.
This review also appears on Goodreads.