My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante
Contributed by Eleanor Sherer

Review by James Wood, The New Yorker

Wood is a book critic and staff writer for The New Yorker. He begins by introducing the reader to Elena Ferrante. Wood considers Ferrante’s work to be lucid, remarkable, and simply honest (Wood par. 1). He spends a lot of time justifying the author’s anonymity, but mentions that, although Ferrante remains anonymous, she provides written answers to questions asked by journalists, where several collections of letters have even been published. From these letters, her readers learn that she was brought up in Naples and still lives in Italy. Wood considers Ferrante’s work as an autobiography which is why she wants to remain anonymous.

Wood reviews several of Ferrante’s books including The Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter,and My Brilliant Friend.He considers Ferrante’s novels as violently and intensely personal (Wood par. 4). He provides a detailed summary of the four books, covering almost all the main events of the novels. He mentions that The Days of Abandonment is the most widely read of Ferrante’s book in English. Wood asserts that the material that My Brilliant Friend visits is intimate and shockingly candid: Elena’s desperate struggle to maintain her cohesive identity in a traditional marriage during the burden of child bearing; the tedium of sexual intercourse; divorce; child abuse; not-wanting and wanting children; as well as motherhood itself. This novel presents itself as a case history, full of rage, failure, lapses, as well as questionable success (Wood par. 4). However, he acknowledges that all these case histories are fictitious.

Wood finds this book different from other previously written by Ferrante. Unlike the others, My Brilliant Friend is a coming-of-age story. Wood asserts that there is some joy in this book not found in Ferrante’s other work. He proceeds to provide a detailed synopsis of the novel, eventually comparing it with the work of Elsa Morante. According to him, the book may remind readers of the neorealist movies produced by Visconti and De Sica, or perchance of the short stories of Giovanni Verga about Sicilian poverty (Wood par. 15). Wood also provides an analysis of the book, breaking down some of the story’s events and explaining to the readers what they symbolize or foreshadow.

Review by Juliet Lapidos, The New York Times

Lapidos provides a brief plot summary of the book and does not mention any minor characters in the novels. She focuses only on Elena and Lila. However, she mentions that My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan Series. According to Lapidos, Lila is mysterious and charismatic. However, it does not take detective work to understand that Ferrante views her namesake Elena, the protagonist, as brilliant in almost every way. Elena is more fortunate (Lapidos par. 1); her parents give her a good education — unlike Lila, whose parents seem not to care what becomes of her.

Lapidos also gives credit to Ann Goldstein, the translator of the original text (Italian) to English. She considers the novel an astute and thrilling piece of literature. Clearly, this reviewer believes that the narration of the book is skewed in Elena’s favor. But it could possibly be the author’s memoirs, as it is clearly biased whilst providing an accurate description of the real-life accounts and life at that time.

Review by Eugenia Williamson, 2012

Williamson begins by describing Elena Ferrante, who she thinks has made an incredible career out of a handful of disorienting and phantasmagoric books about individuals undone by mundane adversity (Williamson par. 1). Williamson mentions that although Ferrante’s publisher released letters describing who she was, it is rumored that the real name of the novelist is Domenico Starnone (Williamson par. 2).

She proceeds with a short summary of the novel. According to Williamson, Lila or Lina — as she calls her — is a product of the strange world that is Ferrante’s terrifying creation. Elena is enthralled and frightened by her. During their childhood friendship, their lives are defined by acts of sabotage and ever-escalating daring. Williamson considers the part of the book in which Elena discovers Lila’s changing body an emotionally written scene about puberty. The reviewer acknowledges that Ferrante, has for some time, explored the impacts of male domination on Italian women. However, in the novel, she focuses on what this patriarchy does to a whole neighborhood (Williamson par. 3).

Review by Dan Barrett, 2013

Barrett starts his review with a picture of a woman dressed in a wedding gown, holding hands with a man. Immediately below the picture, Barrett writes, “There’s something special about a bond you forge when you are still not sure who you are. Elena Ferrante’s thoughtful, astute writing may have you calling to mind moments from your own childhood that you have kept buried for decades”. It is clear that Barrett really connected with this novel. Like other reviewers that have been discussed, Barrett starts by discussing the mystery of Elena Ferrante (Barrett par. 1). He states that Ferrante has no photos or biographical information on the Internet. However, her work has definitely attracted a multitude of fans around the world.

The reviewer then provides a brief summary of the book. According to Barrett, one of the strengths of the novel is the fact that it is relentlessly shrewd, under no illusions. The author repeatedly explains the pain that Elena and Lila inflict on one another, with Lila greeting Elena’s triumph with disdain (Barrett par. 3). On the other hand, Elena acts proudly, and with a hint of happiness, as she thinks about Lila’s dwindling number of opportunities.

As he reads the book, the reviewer was constantly reminded about his friendships when he was young, friendships that currently seem more important to him than his adulthood relationships. Barrett is, however, hesitant to give the book a completely positive review because its narration is relentlessly sober (Barrett par. 4). The reviewer wishes that Ferrante would have given more attention to the more-mysterious aspects of the neighborhood where the two girls live. In his opinion, Ferrante could have — but parts of her tone may have been lost in the translation of the book, from Italian to English, though he stops short of criticizing the translation as a whole.

Although the book does not meet Barrett’s expectations, he recommends it to all his readers (Barrett par. 5). He particularly credits the beginning and the end of the novel as being predominantly strong. From the first pages of the novel, the readers learn that the two main characters have a mysterious friendship, one that anyone would want to explore. In the latter pages, the story again takes an interesting turn which makes Barrett and the reader intrigued about what is to come.

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