Sunday, September 27, 2015

Elena Ferrante - Judy Blume's Opposite

Last week I complained about the lack of substance in Judy Blume's adult novel about the lifelong friendship of two girls who were affected by a series of air traffic accidents in their small town in New Jersey.

A week later I can only marvel at the depth and sophistication of "My Brilliant Friend," the first in a series of four novels, also about the  lifelong friendship of two girls, Lila and Elena, raised in the violent, patriarchal world of Naples, Italy. What a different reading experience!

Much has been written about the enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. Apparently no one actually knows who she is. She eschews speaking engagements and only acquiesces to interviews by mail. Some even thought that she might be a man but, based upon my reading, that just doesn't seem probable. Her female characters, their thoughts, aspirations, jealousies, and insensitivities are simply too visceral. This is the work of a writer at the top of her game.

The story begins in the 1950's in a small, insular neighborhood outside Naples, a town that serves as a microcosm of Italy at the time. Lila and Elena might be two sides of the same coin, Lila the daredevil, the bad girl, the leader, and Elena, the fearful follower and admirer.

They meet in primary school at a time when few were expected to further their education beyond the eighth grade. Girls like Lila and Elena have no money. Their highest expectations would have been to work in the family's meager business or to marry and have babies. But these girls have brains, imaginations, and aspirations. What will become of them?

And that's what the reader will discover, lost in these volumes of exquisite prose. One asks how can a writer - think of Alice McDermott - take a subject of such little consequence, the daily lives of small-town girls, their parents, siblings, boyfriends, and turn it into a work of literature?

Ferrante captures the importance of the hierarchy in a small town. The butcher trumps the shoemaker who trumps the clerical worker. The first one to own a car has a means of escape, a way to open up to a wider world. But the one with the education? What good is Latin and Greek when your family needs you to forge a propitious alliance with another family? What's love got to do with it, Tina would ask.

I won't tell you what happens. I only know the beginnings of the story myself. After all, it's life and all that living entails, betrayal, hurt, sexual awakening, accolades and disappointments. I'm waiting for book 2 in the series right now. I don't doubt that I'll be living with these women into their old age and enjoying every minute.


Malcolm Campbell said...

You may have tempted me into reading this book. I, too, have mostly heard about the privacy policy, and have been hovering around the BUY BUTTON for her books. Thanks for pushing me over the edge.


Sallyb said...

Excellent! So pleased that she and I have a new reader. Thanks for commenting.