The Observer

When they were young

Fatimah Elzahrah, Staff Reporter

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Many works of fiction, though they create universes that parallel ours, provide deep insights into the human psyche. My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is one such work. The first of the Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend is a hauntingly honest look at the development of social relationships between family, friends and lovers.

The planned disappearance of Lila, the best friend of narrator Elena, opens the honest, graphic retelling of the intimate details of the growth of Elena and Lila over the course of their lives. Elena and Lila, two young girls, grew up in the harsh, violent streets of a neighborhood outside of Naples. The anguish as a result of this violence manifests itself within the development of the children of this town. The narrator, an older Lila looking back on her past experiences, provides an insightful tone that comes with the introspection of an individual shaped by years of adulthood and the experience that comes with it.

One may think that this is another novel simply relaying the story of a troublesome childhood and how adulthood overcame the insecurities of the past. However the niceties that are often associated with childhood and youth are stripped away as Elena unearths the uneasy and unsettling obsessions that stemmed from her relationships. One of these obsessions was and still is—as the reader will continue to see in the remainder of the series—Lila. The need to be like her friend in physical, intellectual and emotional milestones creates a storm of insecurities that constantly overshadow every aspect of Elena’s childhood. From an early age, Lila establishes herself as an independent, unstoppable force. However with such a reputation, few venture to truly get to know this strange girl. Elena is an exception, whose fascination with Lila and her actions becomes the focal point of many of her thoughts. When Lila succeeded at school, Elena pushed and struggled to achieve and maintain the same level of success. When Lila indulged in her first romantic endeavours, Elena sought to do the same, even though her suitors were not as appealing to her. Yet the fear of Lila leaving her behind and achieving milestones without her compels Elena to ignore her internal desires and pursue the same achievements as Lila.

The pressure that Elena places upon herself shapes a strange young woman who is constantly at conflict with her own desires and those that are shaped by Lila’s. Elena’s struggle is perfectly captured by the author, who does not shy away from any details. This honesty creates a vulnerable look at the development of girls in society, highlighting aspects that many readers can relate to. It is so honest that one may even venture that the story contains close ties to the actuality of the author’s life, even though the novel is categorized as fiction.

This book takes the readers up to the girls’ mid-adolescence, culminating at a point that leaves readers at a cliffhanger and a desire to continue the series. I recommend this series to anyone who enjoys realistic fiction because the term “realistic fiction” is not enough to encapsulate the many real truths that are depicted in the novel. This novel truly shows life from the perspective of a struggling girl who attempts to make do with what she has, while always seeking the aspects of another’s life that will presumably improve her own life. For those who do read this book, be ready to see topics that are often addressed as a sugar-coated idea of youth in an unwavering, eye-opening light.

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When they were young