Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and the World-Changing Power of Female Friendships

If you missed this much-discussed book in 2016, now's the time to revisit it.
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If you missed this much-discussed book in 2016, now's the time to revisit it.

This past month, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof posted his favorite reads in 2016 on his Facebook profile. The one book he criticized was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which he views as a "disappointment" and a book that “everybody in the world seems to love except me.” Even though I am a fan of Kristof and his work, I beg to differ. 

Ferrante’s series, the "Neapolitan Novels,” which in chronological order include My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and the fourth and final novel, The Story of the Lost Child, are without doubt some of the most carefully crafted and painfully poignant novels I have read. I am not alone on this opinion, as TIME magazine listed Ferrante as one of 2016’s Most Influential People, and this past summer the literary world was shaken when the previously anonymous author's name was revealed. Now, wherever the name Ferrante is mentioned, people have a word or two to share.

Ferrante’s master storytelling reveals a series of powerful themes, one of which is the story of female friendships. Throughout the series, Ferrante exposes the raw and unapologetic truth behind friendships between women, predominantly between the two main protagonists, Elena Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. Elena and Lila are childhood friends from the same neighborhood outside of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Both are born into impoverished families whose parents have elementary-level educations. Despite their backgrounds, Elena and Lila stand out from their peers alongside a select few of their fellow classmates. The two girls recognize their mutual talent and from the start of their friendship, they understand that they need each other in order to survive the patriarchal society they find themselves in which involve domestic violence against women and local political corruption. Throughout the story of their friendship, Ferrante exposes the highs and lows of Elena and Lila’s relationship, the moments of true love and absolute toxicity. It’s Ferrante’s gift of depicting the virtues and vices in female friendships that makes the Neapolitan Novels stand out from the crowd.

One of the major flaws of these female characters are similar to those of many women—a proclivity to envy. The primary source of jealousy between Elena and Lila is education. Although the two girls experience verbal and physical abuse at home, Elena’s parents consent to her advancement in education after elementary school; meanwhile, Lila’s father throws her out the window when she tries to argue with him. Both girls were at the top of their class, however Lila possesses a talent, a rare inner drive that intimidates Elena. Lila is aware of Elena’s insecurity and out of spite, Lila frequently mocks Elena with the fact that if she continued her education, she would have surpassed Elena. However, Lila’s quipping remarks are the result of her own ache knowing that she will never have the chance like Elena to realize her own potential.

Although most women may never reach the degree of asinine comments that Elena and Lila exchange throughout the course of their relationship, many women can understand the temptation to compare themselves to their fellow female friends. Think about the time when your friend got hired for that job, got to go on that European backpacking trip or finally got into that dream relationship…did it ever sting for you at all? This green monster is known all too well between Elena and Lila and constantly creeps into their friendship.

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Ferrante shares this familiar feeling among women, the urge to compare and to resent when other women seem to have it better. Throughout the novels we see how the female characters discover that the grass is not greener on the other side, and often the two female protagonists were bearing heavy burdens and trials beneath the surface. Very rarely do we get to see the interior struggles that other women share and for this reason, Ferrante depicts this familiar psychological battle with precise accuracy.

Despite Lila’s deep resentment that she never completed her education, she champions Elena. In one of the most vital scenes from the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Elena is in the middle of preparing Lila for her wedding while discussing Elena’s schooling. Lila insists that Elena must do whatever it takes to continue her education, because in Lila’s words, Elena is her “brilliant friend.”

During Lila’s wealthy period of life, she buys Elena’s schoolbooks and lets her study in her well-furnished apartment because in her own heart, Lila knows that if Elena excels in life, this will also be a symbolic victory for all the women of the neighborhood. Even though Lila struggles with her own inner demons, her love for Elena triumphs in the end and is the catalyst for Elena’s ultimate success as a writer among the Italian intelligentsia.

In the relationship of Elena and Lila, Ferrante illustrates her striking talent for showing how flawed characters can overcome their faults to love. We are all imperfect creatures so in turn, we love imperfectly. We all struggle with our own jealousies and insecurities that are the result of other broken relationships and inner struggles, but as Elena and Lila demonstrate, love is nonetheless the key to surpassing our vices.

At the end of the day, Lena and Lila love each other and it’s this love is what helps them overcome their flaws. As Italians say when they love someone, ti voglio bene: “I want you well.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of love, to love is to want the ultimate good for the beloved. It’s this selfless love, conveyed so beautifully in the pages, that renders Ferrante’s novels incredible exemplars of the power of female friendships.

Photo Credit: Suhyeon Choi