My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One

by Elena Ferrante

Other authorsAnn Goldstein (Translator)
Paperback, 2012





Europa Editions, (2012)


Beginning in the 1950s Elena and Lila grow up in Naples, Italy, mirroring two different aspects of their nation.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Elena and Lila have been friends since they were children together in the slums of Naples. The novel opens with a framing prologue with the two women in their sixties, but the focus here is on their lives from the ages of six to seventeen. They are bound to each other, at times inseparable, at times at the furthest remove. Each takes the other as a kind of superego, a spur to acts and endeavours that will take them out of their families, their claustrophobic neighbourhood, their lives, in fact, and onward to something they know not what. Their horizons are stultifyingly limited initially, but together, at least, they are able to lift themselves up in order to see beyond. However, this is post-war Italy, and what is beyond the horizon is not always so attractive.

The relationship between Elena and Lila is the brilliant centre of this story, but swirling around that intimate friendship—one in which both girls at different points refer to the other pointedly and justifiably as “my brilliant friend”—are a huge cast of characters, economic and political tensions, passion and consequence. Initially that host is limited to immediate family or the families of others who live in the same building. Only gradually does that circle expand. Elena is a diligent student, but Lila is, without seeming to even try, utterly brilliant. Unlike her friend, Lila can already read and write before she gets to school. She taught herself. Lila’s autodidacticism becomes a recurring motif. We see Lila read through the circulating library, and teach herself Latin and Greek. There seems no limit to what Lila might be capable of. No limit other than the imaginative capacity to think herself outside of her own situation. Perhaps. Fortunately Lila’s development spurs Elena on to renewed efforts of her own, though within the school environment. And so each enables the other to flourish.

Elena’s development, thanks to the encouragement of teachers, takes her, in school, beyond anything her parents might have hoped for her. Her friend, however, needs to be more inventive. And she is. Lila is an alchemist of old, transmuting base metals into gold. Or in this case, working within the elements and forces of her local environment to create dramatic new possibilities. Seeing her way through. By the end, however, it is unclear which girl has succeeded.

You will find yourself rooting for both Lila and Elena even as you fear for them. And the dramatic conclusion to My Brilliant Friend will have you waiting impatiently, as I now am, to get your hands on the second volume of this trilogy. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
2015, Blackstone Audiobooks, Read by Hillary Huber

In a vibrant but poor Naples neighbourhood in the 1950s, two best friends: Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco learn to rely on one another ahead of all else in order to survive on the tough neighbourhood streets. The girls, though in many ways opposites, are both brilliant students; but, of course, this is not a time when education for women is appreciated, much less extolled. When Lila joins the family shoemaking business, Elena is determined to carry on with her studies. But how far will she get, and to what end? Yet even as their paths diverge, we are aware that the girls’ destinies are inescapably linked. Through them, Ferrante tells not only an engaging and turbulent coming-of-age story, but also the story of a working class neighbourhood and of a country being transformed by history.

Narrated by Elena, My Brilliant Friend begins in her early childhood and closes with Lila’s marriage. As the novel concludes, Lila’s future is, at least for the time being, relatively predictable, but not so that of Elena. With Lila married, her place within the framework of neighbourhood and friends is insecure. And there is social and familial pressure to marry, particularly from her mother:

“When Lila, splendid in the dazzling white cloud of her dress and the gauzy veil, processed through the Church of the Holy Family on the arm of the shoemaker and joined Stefano, who looked extremely handsome, at the flower-decked altar … my mother, even if her wandering eye seemed to gaze elsewhere, looked at me to make me regret that I was there, in my glasses, far from the center of the scene, while my bad friend had acquired a wealthy husband, economic security for her family, a house of her own, not rented but bought, with a bathtub, a refrigerator, a television, and a telephone.” (Ch 58)

I was hesitant somewhat to begin this Neapolitan series, which has garnered so much positive review – heightened expectations having been my disappointment on more than one occasion. But I thoroughly enjoyed My Briliant Friend, and I’m curious enough to read on, so The Story of a New Name is up next.
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LibraryThing member wandering_star
My Brilliant Friend is about the close friendship, rivalry and mutual influence of two young girls living in a poor district of Naples. Elena, our narrator, is hard-working and clever, and wants to fit in. Lina is fierce and driven. She is perhaps even cleverer and more attractive than Elena, but her tendency to fight for everything means that her path is less smooth.

This was a wonderful book and probably the best that I have read this year. Both the portrayal of the girls' friendship, and of the community they come from, are complex, detailed, realistic and illuminating.

The community first - it's a poor district of Naples, and at the start of the story when the girls are six, it's just beginning to recover from the war years. Everyone knows what everyone else did during those years, not least because some people are still living off the ill-gotten money from their underhand behaviour. The historical rivalries and resentments play out in even the lives and friendships of the children too young to know the background, but become even more complex with Italy's post-war economic and political changes. The intense machismo of the neighbourhood also plays a huge part in the dynamics (Lina, typically, tries to ignore it). But all of this is told simply, mainly through the way that it affects the relationships of this group of friends.

Lina herself is a compelling character, and we see her grow from a child, urgently wanting to conquer knowledge of all kinds, to an apparently serene and assured young woman, whose force of will means she will still not be bound by external limitations. Her friendship with Elena as they grow and change is tested many times - Ferrante is brilliant at the little changes in power dynamics and the way the girls use them, through their progress at school, their social networks or relationships with boys. We see Elena dismissing her own successes and wishing she could do well in the areas that Lina is now interested in - and realise much later that Lina was going through the same things.

Without wanting to give anything away, all of this culminates at the end of the book with a set-piece event which involves the whole community, and having known the relationships through the previous ten years, the reader really feels the impact and can imagine it reverberating into the future.
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LibraryThing member stringcat3
I didn't finish it. Pushed my way through the first section, about 60 pages, then put it down and after a week hadn't picked it up again, so back to the library it went. After everything I'd read about the Neapolitan Quartet by Ferrante, I was prepared to be dazzled. I was ... bored. It's just chick lit, people. Tedious characters, and it just dragggggged. Quite disappointing.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have been getting a lot of press lately. On a recent bookshop visit, I was quite smitten with the beautiful Europa Editions and picked up the first book, My Brilliant Friend. The series tells of a lifelong friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerulla, who came of age in mid-20th century Naples. My Brilliant Friend begins when the two girls are in primary school and ends when they are about sixteen. They are both outstanding students, and their relationship fluctuates between intimacy and competitiveness. We get to know their neighborhood through a child’s eyes, with all the common misconceptions that come with that. As the girls mature, Elena, who narrates the story, continues her education while Lila joins her father and brother in running the family business. However, she studies on the side and manages to keep up with Elena’s command of Latin and Greek. Towards the end of the book both are exploring relationships with men and learning some difficult life lessons.

The novel is populated with a rich cast of characters: family members, neighbors, powerful citizens and those who must bow down to them. Elena and Lila are from working class backgrounds, and their forays into higher levels of society are simultaneously enlightening and painful. So are their experiences growing up female and Italian in that time period. But I most enjoyed the relationships, and the struggle to find one’s place in the world. As the first book drew to a close both Elena and Lila were on the cusp of a new phase in their lives, and I am eager to read what happens next.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
This is the first book of a four-part saga, and I seem to be in a tiny minority of readers who want to go no further. I just couldn't connect with it.

The friends of the title (which one is brilliant?) are Elena and Lila, who grew up in a small Naples neighborhood. Lila, from a shoemaker family, is fierce and unconventional; Elena more sober and scholarly. Elena goes to high school and Lila, although smarter, does not. She grows pretty and trades on her looks to become the Jackie Kennedy of the neighborhood.

I read this in the midst of a professional and personal crisis, which may color my reaction, but I was often bored. The index of characters in the beginning of the book is absolutely essential, but after a while I didn't care who was who, I just wanted to get through it for the sake of my book club.
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LibraryThing member rainpebble
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; (4*)

This proved to be an entertaining summer read in the midst of winter. Ferrante presents wonderfully complex characters and provides an intimate view of the characters in this coming of age story.
My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls, Lila and Elena, in Naples during the 50's. The book spans their friendship from first grade to age 16.
With great detail Elena Ferrante portrays life in a Naples working class neighborhood with all of the kids coming of age. We read of the troubles in families and of neighborhood feuds. Social hierarchy and family status is set by occupations amongst the neighbors. Railroad worker, porter, shoemaker, pharmacist, fruit and vegetable grocer, baker and more are portrayed in this study of the human character.
Weddings are an opportunity for the families to splurge extending themselves beyond economic reasonableness for wedding preparations, clothing, and gifts. Education plays a key role in the book and sets the path of life choices for some of the young characters.
The protagonist, Elena, and Lila are brilliant girls. Opportunities and choices carve divergent paths for them and adolescence separates them more as they both struggle to fit into their world. One will find a way to fit in and the other will stands half in and half out of the world of plebs.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
A small rather poor neighborhood just outside Naples in the 1950's, for some reason this novel was one I really bonded with. Reminded me of my old neighborhood in Chicago, the tough guys, the older guys with cars, the trashy girls, the stuck-up girls all trying to become, well really who knows at that age. This is the first of a trilogy about two friends, raised in this type of neighborhood, both extremely smart, though only one continues with school, one is a follower and yes this one I wanted to shake at times, everything she accomplishes she tends to only value it if it wins the approval of her friend. Very interesting though, the interplay between the people in the neighborhood, their parents and of course those who think they are better than everyone else. I also think Europe publishes interesting and often original types of books. Enjoyed this. Well written and interesting for those who like generational type novels and character studies. Look forward to the next part so I can catch up with those in the neighborhood.… (more)
LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
Lila and Elena, two childhood friends in a neighborhood of 1950s Naples, both wear the moniker “my brilliant friend,” but there is no question which of the two Ferrante meant. Elena continues her schooling through high school in this first installment of the trilogy of novels Ferrante has written about the two, while Lila, incandescent Lila, is held back from further schooling by her family claiming they cannot afford it. We ache for her.

Ferrante captures the uncertainty and confusion of youth through the voice and perspective of Elena. But what we really want is what everyone wants—the thoughts and voice of Lila. We can’t get enough of her, even when we only see her from a distance. We long to know what she thinks. We know, just like Elena does, that Elena is only a conduit, pretty and clever, but a poor substitute for the real thing. If we could only get to Lila, all will become clear. Lila radiates something like unfiltered truth, understanding, knowledge. Her opinions are the ones that matter. But even then, we wonder if we would be accepted into her inner circle. Elena is our conduit.

Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels feel especially real when describing the resentments and jockeying for influence among the boys seeking favors of Elena and Lila, and the confusions these two radiate when considering the options left open to them in a culture not known to value contributions from the female sex beyond housekeeping and baby-making. We yearn to know, too, the thoughts and desires of the parents of Lila and Elena—to know if they are being fairly portrayed by Elena or if there is something more going on which she does not have the understanding yet to relate.

By the end of this, Book I of L’amica genial, we get the uncomfortable feeling that we are on the edge of something unknown, that life will play out for these two much like it does for us: we grasp in the dark for something we cannot see, and hope that it will bring what we imagine, not knowing if the direction is the right one. This marvelous recreation of two lives in a poor neighborhood of Naples a long time ago draws us in completely and involves in in a way that only great literature can.
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LibraryThing member ImperfectCJ
Throughout this novel, I was struck by the situations---both noticed and unnoticed---that imprison the characters and the different ways in which different characters deal with this imprisonment. And then there are the characters to whom the rules seem not to apply, those like Nino who seem able to walk into and out of the neighborhood without consequence. I want to read the rest of the novels and see if these characters really are free or if they're just trapped in a different way.

There's so much hope and violence and the need for indirect action. It's a very realistic story, both compelling and depressing. I've got book two on hold. It's probably good it's not available now or I'd be up too late reading it.
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LibraryThing member booksaplenty1949
What is all the fuss about? I found this repetitive and conventional. The narrator has to keep telling us how amazing and remarkable her friend Lila is, because she is largely incapable of showimg us. Naples, that unique World Apart, comes across as some generic postwar Italian city, once we get past the first hundred pages, which could have been set in Boston with little alteration. My general rule is that when a contemporary novelist is blurbed as another Jane Austen one should give him or her a wide berth, and this certainly confirmed its wisdom.… (more)
LibraryThing member cacky
Ferrange does an excellent job of depicting the complexities of friendship between women, although in this book 1, Elena and Lila are jus girls. I equally enjoyed the surrounding kaleidoscope of parents, siblings, boys, girls, teachers, shoes and schoo. Looking forward to book 2.
LibraryThing member Iambookish
I had a very hard time finishing this book, so I won't be rushing out to get the next in the series. Not sure why I didn't find it as great as so many others have, it was just okay for me.
LibraryThing member DanTarlin
Strange book. Beautifully descriptive about life in Naples in the 1950s, but in the end I found it slow. There's a puzzling prologue that I think it's going back to, but it never does.
I'm not the best customer for such a book, admittedly, but sometimes I like these- this one didn't work for me.
LibraryThing member Hebephrene
This is first of all the first part of a trilogy which is important to know because towards the end at the wedding scene Ferrante is foreshadowing conflicts to come while you are only ten pages from the end. She is not an ostentatious author and yet you are drawn into this huge story of a two young girls and their working class neighborhood in Naples. On character reveals herself through her closely observed worshipful love for her friend. The book is framed by the news that this friend has disappeared and for Ferrante the notion of self is staggered by the repeated idea that people disappear on each other. Abandonment being the theme of her earlier novel. Here the main character struggles to decide who she is in the shadow of her more talented friend and their friendship can be seen as the bond that will allow them to establish identities outside those available in their neighborhood. While the story is told by the older narrator looking back this doesn't take anything away from Ferrante's ability to give us those moments in the life of the young girl with immediacy and affection. As is well known Ferrante keeps her own identity completely hidden so obviously these themes resonate through her work. There were some extraordinary set pieces like the wedding and the fireworks on New Years and the summer vacation. I loved that she provided a cast list because it is a big sprawling book of characters and in that sense a very rich experience. Big ambition, big pleasures. She is one of the best.… (more)
LibraryThing member PrimosParadise
This year's TOB continues to inform and haunt my reading year like a bad community theater version of Jacob Marley. Those [Who Leave and Those Who Stay] was on the short list but I couldn't bring myself to read the third in a series without reading the first two books. After finally finishing Marlon James' Jamaican opus I really thought I would opt for a much easier book. Apparently not. That is not to say that this novel of two Neapolitan girls growing up in post war Naples is difficult; it's not. The writing is beautiful; the two main protagonists are fully developed characters as if drawn with an needle dipped in blood. The author fully evokes the time, the place and the mores and the writing really sings. Well worth the time and highly recommended. The fourth book is due out soon but I don't think I'll be ready for it until the end of the year; I have two more to go, but I need a break.… (more)
LibraryThing member missizicks
I wanted to love this more than I did. It's not a bad book, it just didn't grab my attention enough. It felt like it was trying too hard. It's the story of the childhood and adolescence of two girls, Elena and Lila, who grow up in a village outside Naples. They become friends through a weird courtship of rivalry, with Lila the stronger character and Elena the one always trying to win Lila's respect. Their lives take different paths, but they never lose sight of each other. It's a straightforward tale of growing up in a small community and having ambitions centred on leaving. I didn't care very much for either character. I found them a bit dispassionately described. As a result, I don't feel compelled to read the next in the series.… (more)
LibraryThing member grheault
Growing up in a poor neighborhood, one girl, the author goes the 'good girl' scholastic route, while the other who is more innately brilliant, less polished and less lucky, gets shot down a few times, and goes a different road. Who is the more brilliant? One never knows. Each in her own way makes choices, decisions, comes to conclusions about life and moves on. Interesting characters, excellent over the years evolution of children to broader adulthood, how different we can become as we get beyond the few blocks of childhood. The brightest stars are often not in Hollywood or teaching at Harvard, but are just around the corner.… (more)
LibraryThing member angiestahl
Honestly: I didn't get the hype. I read to the end, but it felt like more work than pleasure. Detailed characterizations, but so close-in that it's boring and tedious. A ton of observation and detail, but little heart and emotion.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
Two girls meet in a poor, close-knit neighborhood in Naples after World War II. One is smart and well-behaved, the other brilliant and violent. The first is the narrator, and her perspective grows as they do. One gets an education, the other does not. One is adventurous, to a point, the other a follower.

We see Elena enthralled by Lila's daring and violence. But Naples, at least this part, is a violent society, and currents of the war still run through the culture. The community itself is a character, along with parents, teachers, siblings, boys who grow into violent young men. It's a fascinating portrait of the time and these people.

Unfortunately, it's the first in a quartet of books, the latest not yet released. And it ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, that will force me to read on. Not that I'm complaining.

Note: one of the men in our reading group called this chick-lit, to which one of the women remarked that perhaps we could call some other books we've read 'dick-lit'. Yeah. Chick-lit this isn't.

the story starts 50 years after the events of the book, with the disappearance of Lila, and is a first-person remembrance told by Elena. First-person allows the writing to be very personal, very close to the reader, but does not allow us to see anything but the behavior of the other characters and Elena's opinions of them. I happen to like that kind of writing, finding it more immersive than third-person narration, limits and all.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
This book is fairly slow-paced, but if you like character studies it is wonderful. Elena and Lila are both fully realized; there's not a false note.

I reread East of Eden a few months ago and found myself both more sympathetic to Cathy than I had been when I was younger and also frustrated by Steinbeck's one-note portrayal of her. Lila reminds me a bit of a less homicidal, more nuanced Cathy.… (more)
LibraryThing member stef7sa
Interesting subject matter, dull way of telling the story. The author hasn't really thought about structuring the story in a way that keeps the reader motivated to continue, she just sums up. We learn about all her grades of all her courses during her entire school career, which makes for a boring read. A bit of humour might have helped, but the narrator is as serious as can be about the poor and violent environment she grew up in. The novel ends with a hell of a cliffhanger though, so I might be temped to have a go at part 2 after all ...… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I am very happy that My Brilliant Friend is just the first book in Elena Ferrante's trilogy about two girls from Naples, Italy. Lena and Lila live in the same building, and first encounter each other as small girls. Lila is skinny, fearless and fiercely intelligent and the more ordinary Lena is challenged to keep up with her, first in acts of daring, then in excelling at school. But Lena's life, despite being the oldest daughter of a porter, is easier than Lila's, the daughter of a cobbler. Lena is allowed to continue beyond elementary school, while Lila stays home to help her mother and in her father's workshop. Lila never stops planning and dreaming of more and it's her determination that fuels Lena, until events conspire to take away Lila's hope as well.

This trilogy has been described as an Italian soap opera, and it is that, set in a colorful working class neighborhood where feuds between families are common and finances hang on shoestrings. Both Lena and Lila are wonderful characters and I'm eager to see what happens next in their story.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
My husband is reading this whole trilogy in Italian, so I figured I'd better find out why he's liking fiction about the relationship between two little girls so much!

Some reviewers have commented about the clunky prose, and I have to think this is a translation issue, because he raves about the writing. I found it quite beautiful myself, even in English.

It's a long look at a complicated relationship; a study of the interaction between nature - what talents people are born with - and nurture, or the environment these talents develop in. The sense of place and description of all the characters were so strong, I felt as if I were living there along with them.

On to the next.
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LibraryThing member snash
A good description of adolescence, the struggle to move beyond family; excellent development of place and characters.


Original language



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