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Latest Review: "My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions.

This book was published in English in 2012, but considering the attention Ferrante has been getting for her work since then, this is a very appropriate “Better late than never” kind of review. I’ve yet to read anything of Ferrante’s, but am absolutely aching to after all the high praise and descriptions of her writing.

Acacia O’Connor is a first wave U of R MALTS alumna working from Italian into English. She works at Columbia University and shares a subway stop with Dr. Craig Spencer, the first Ebola patient in New York City. Instead of attending ALTA 2014, she thought it would be fun to run a marathon, at night, on the Las Vegas strip. (I was also with her at the opening night midnight-showing of the first part of the last Harry Potter movie. We did not dress up.)

Here’s the beginning of Acacia’s review:

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?), one part eager devotion (Where is she, I want to be her best friend!), enthusiasm over Ferrante was reignited when the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series was published this month.

Her fans, reviewers, and interviewers don’t know who she is, where she is, whether her name is really Elena Ferrante, how much her books are drawn from her life or the lives of friends, family. Even her translator, the fantastic Ann Goldstein, has corresponded with her only sparingly. What is known is that her works have great, deep, broad feelings. Mammoth feelings. Feelings like a spiny barrier reef coating the entire bottom of the Mare di Napoli. And readers, it seems, are really into those feels.

I, too, was caught up. My Brilliant Friend evokes those familiar yet almost indescribable feelings about long friendships, adolescence, and home. You’re inextricably tied to a person, a place, but you hate how strong the connection is, how it drags you back in when you try to escape it; slowly it tears you apart.

That sounds melodramatic. In real life, we tend to downplay drama, shake off the pain. Feels are for Tumblr. But those moments of “suffering” (perhaps the most prevalent word in My Brilliant Friend) exist. When elementary school “best friends” were established and betrayed. When a very close friend goes off and gets married young. When someone you love moves smack dab across the country. Rarely do we find the tension, the dissatisfaction, or the fear created by the completely natural and expected changes in friendships articulated as clearly as we find it in these novels.

Ferrante captures the unnerving and beautiful elements of human relationships with vivid precision and dramatic seriousness. While the main character and narrator of My Brilliant Friend is Elena Greco, the true protagonist is the bond between Elena, called Lenu, and her childhood friend, Raffaela “Lila” Cerrullo. Elena and Lila are two children of a lively, dirty, poverty-stricken ghetto in Naples. Elena and Lila are best friends, but at times one or the other of them isn’t so sure of it. The friendship is dynamic, as much in flux as anything in their world—a world where adults grease the palms of Mafiosi, scream at one another, beat their children, and throw irons out of windows.

For the rest of the review, go here.



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