Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fiction | Love and Loathing in Friendship

It has sadly been a loooong time since I've been able to attend one of my book club's monthly meetings. The last time I attended was in May! Thankfully, our beloved host bookstore survived the hurricane, and, thanks to my Goodreads friendship with another book club member, I was able to find out meeting details, despite the store having no power the week before it. So last Friday it was book club reunited! At last!

The book selected was Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, translated from Italian and published by indie bookstore favorite Europa. Ferrante has written three novels prior to this one, all apparently shorter in length, and this one is the first in a planned trilogy (more on that later).

My Brilliant Friend starts by introducing our narrator Elena, a woman in her sixties, who is reflecting on her 1950s childhood and adolescence with her best friend, Lila. Right off the bat as children, Elena and Lila are not much alike. Elena is good, while Lila is bad; Elena is passive, while Lila is aggressive. These dissimilarities expand as they grow up. Elena has to work hard in school, while Lila is naturally brilliant; Elena is plagued by adolescent awkwardness, while Lila matures beautifully.

Elena and Lila have a typical adolescent friendship, one that is littered with competition and animosity that runs (mostly) quietly below the surface. It's an accurate portrayal of the internal conflicts one has with a friendship, be it jealousy, competition, etc. You wish the best for your friend while at the same time hoping you come out on top; you're horridly jealous of her looks but you want to be seen with her. We hear the conflicts of Elena's friendship with Lila—thoughts of Elena's that Lila may never even be aware of—but they stem from Elena's own insecurities. Essentially, Lila highlights Elena's own flaws to herself and it causes Elena to both despise her and idolize her.

As a reader, I felt I never knew much about Lila's perspective, how she feels towards her friendship with Elena. We feel distant from Lila, even though we follow her day to day through Elena. Perhaps it's just a consequence of Elena's storytelling—she's writing about the effect the friendship had on herself, internally, and is less concerned on the thoughts and feelings of Lila. It's just another example of that selfishness found in friendships.

Growing up in the 1950s in a small neighborhood of Naples, Lila and Elena are severely limited as women by the society in which they live. Part of their friendship stems from their mutual distaste of the state of this society, but they deal with their frustrations in different ways. Lila is an aggressive woman and resorts to the same actions and behaviors she is trying hard to escape. To her, this is the only option because she would otherwise remain the passive woman she hates so much. Elena takes her frustrations out on her mother, finding her the representation of everything she doesn't want to become. Both reject the role for women in their society but have different solutions. Elena finds an escape with an education, while Lila plans to marry rich to get out of a society shaped by poverty.

Really, the very fact that they strive for a different kind of life is what makes Elena and Lila notable characters. Their world is so miniscule, encompassing only a few blocks, and it's one of those worlds that is easy to get sucked into because you know nothing else. It's illustrated perfectly when Elena takes a trip into city center that, though only a few miles away, feels like a foreign land to her. She comments on how quiet it feels. All she knows is a society where violence and fighting are the norm. Abuse and arguments are so commonplace that a world without that appears odd to Elena. The setting so strongly defines the characters' perspectives, and you wonder if it was, in fact, commonplace or if Ferrante paints such a small world to emphasize the characters own experiences. Because growing up, one's world is small and self-centric, anyway.

I was really disappointed to see that this was published so recently and that the next in the series is not out yet. Lately, I've found I don't have much motivation to continue series I've started for one reason or another (Sea of Poppies, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Hunger Games, Palace Walk). They've just lacked the something that makes me want to keep reading. But this ended in such a way that wasn't a satisfying enough conclusion. It's like a character-driven tv show, where you don't necessarily care what happens next, but you need to know how their everyday life turns out. There is more to these characters, and we've seen just enough of a peek into their futures that we want to know how they get there.

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