How To Be a Best Frenemy in 1950s Naples

A review of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante



What it’s about

Through our narrator, Elena (nicknamed Lenu), we get to know her and her frenemy Raffaela (nicknamed Lila and Lina). We watch as both girls grow up in 1950s Naples in a poor rough neighborhood where scandals, murders, and violent depression are common. Throughout the four-book-series, we will follow their lives up until their middle age. It’s a bildungsroman (coming of age story) in every sense.


Lenu is a naive and timid girl while Lila is cunning, strong-willed, and sometimes extreme in her behavior. Each girl balances the other out, but not without great difficulty. In this first book, we watch them go through school, accept or reject marriage proposals, and learn more about the politics of their time.


Cultural background

Besides the masterful writing, Elena Ferrante’s series gained a lot of popularity because of the author herself. Elena Ferrante is a pen name and the internet has been obsessively speculating who the author might be. One of the reasons I first picked up the books was because one of my favorite authors, Jhumpa Lahiri, was one of the “suspects.” In a pretty impressive twist, Ferrante’s identity still has not been revealed.


What to expect

Slice of life yet still exciting

While some of the book is pretty banal slice of life and not a thrill, it helps build up to those moments. There’s drama, but it’s so real that it can be very uncomfortable.


Ferrante knows how to write about women. When reading the book I was surprised by how honestly she was able to portray the sometimes petty and unattractive feelings women have in friendships. As we grow up, we are still learning who we are and gaining self-confidence. Lenu and Lila are one another’s closest friends but they still do things out of spite because they feel envy and the need to be competitive (see quote below).


Many characters

The books first pages have an extensive character cheat sheet. With so many Italian names and so many families to keep up with, this cheat sheet is very necessary. I still glance at it while reading as more characters are introduced.


Laughs, gasps, and frustration

I feel weird writing this like it’s excusable, but as this is set in the 1950s, there is at least one scene of frustrating unwanted sexual activity.


The book can be frustrating as you understand the girls’ circumstances and the petty behavior throughout the neighborhood.


Yet, there are still some laughs and satisfying twists that make the story very enjoyable and captivating.

How To Be a Best Frenemy in 1950s Naples

Why this book?

My pen pal from IGGPPC raved about the series on social media and I’m always up to try a good book. This summer, I tried to read the first book, got bored, and gave up. Later a coworker recommended I try again. I did and now I’m really invested in the Neapolitan Novels. I currently have books 3 and 4 waiting for me on hold at the library.


What I learned


Depending on my mood and the type of book, I like to put Post-it notes near the words, quotes, or ideas I want to research or note down. I read on Shabbat (where I can’t write or actively use electricity), so I Post-it note like crazy and then type up my notes when I’m done.


For this novel, I had just a few notes because I was so engrossed.


Quotes


At one point she asked me, but in a teasing tone:

“How’s school?”

“Great.”

“But you don’t have fun the way I do.”

“It’s a different type of fun.”


One of the more popular girls teases Lenu because she hadn’t had many boyfriends and was always very focused on school. This reminded me of a time someone told me, “You’re fun, but you’re a conservative fun.” It was meant as an insult, but I didn’t let it phase me. I related to Lenu here.


We'll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.


The book starts out with a flash forward. An older Lenu finds out that Lila has disappeared. Lenu says that Lila has always desired to disappear, but here Lenu, even as a grown woman, wants to show Lila that Lenu has the power to prevent her from getting what she wants. This sets the tone for the entire series and really excited me because I realized that we’d get to grow with the characters throughout decades and generations.


Words


DDT- DDT is an abbreviation for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. A synthetic organic compound used as an insecticide. Like other chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons, DDT tends to persist in the environment and become concentrated in animals at the head of the food chain. Its use is now banned in many countries. (sources: wiki, dictionary.com)


-There’s a fantastic sequence where the girls do one of the first of many scary things together. The setting mentions that there is a layer of DDT and I wanted to fully understand what that was and how it added to the scene,


Lathe- a machine for shaping wood, metal, or other material by means of a rotating drive that turns the piece being worked on against changeable cutting tools. (sources: wiki)


-I unfortunately didn’t give myself enough context in my notes, but I think this was a machine used in Lila’s father’s cobbler shop.

How To Be a Best Frenemy in 1950s Naples

Have you read any books lately that explore authentic female characters or relationships? Please share in the comments below!



Hadas Ben-Tsur

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Brooklyn native who loves long walks in the rain, putting french fries on my pizza, being an elitist jerk Potterhead, reading about Classical reception, learning new things, and introducing others to Yemenite culture. 

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