My rating: 4 stars
Highly well-regarded books tend to leave me nervous with anticipation and apprehensive about not liking them as much as almost everyone else does. I needn’t have worried about A Amiga Genial (My Brilliant Friend in the English translation) by the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, though. It tells the story of the friendship between two young women since childhood, while making critical considerations on class, social mobility and the importance of education. The sequence of episodes from their life is for the most part engaging and immersive. It felt like watching the events unfold.
The narration is gripping from the outset. The prologue immediately made me want to know more about what happened in the characters’ lives up to that moment. Rino phoned the narrator, Elena Greco, asking if she knew about his mother, Raffaella Cerullo, whereabouts. They have been friends for around 60 years. Raffaella, who the narrator has always called Lila, took everything that was hers from the house and even removed herself from the pictures. She wanted to erase herself from history. Displeased, the narrator has resolved to write down their story.
Their friendship started when they were children, at the specific time when they decided to go near Don Achille’s apartment. The narrator remembers the significant moment when Lila stopped, waited for her and held her hand. But Lila had always impressed and inspired her. Despite misbehaving more than the boys at school, she was the brightest child there, having taught herself how to read. Elena felt that she had to remain close to Lila, so that in a way she wouldn’t become a threat. Her parents wanted her to be one of the best in class, if she wanted to continue studying and not to have to leave school to help them.
After they finish elementary school, their story becomes more interesting and its account less repetitive. Lila’s father didn’t let her attend middle school. He hadn’t done so and didn’t see why it was important for a girl to do so neither. Elena, on the other hand, was allowed to carry on with her studies, after their teacher managed to convince her parents, particularly her father, that she had potential. Their friendship continued, nevertheless, and we follow its development.
Although the story is told merely from Elena’s point of view, I became truly immersed into the characters’ world and felt that was slowly getting to know them intimately. She doesn’t only evaluate her friendship with Lila from her perspective. She also makes educated guesses about how the other felt. She understood that Lila probably didn’t like being revered and looked up to. The book conveys that friendships can be conflicting. In spite of involving great care for the other person, they can also result in envy and competition when it comes to school and relationships with boys and young men.
As the narrator recalls her neighbourhood, she introduces us to the harshness of the life in Naples at the time. There are various references to gang and domestic violence and how economic struggles may lead to it. Around the city, some areas were starting to display signs of prosperity. In their neighbourhood, though, there were two opposing views held by the inhabitants – some showed great desire for social mobility, while others felt like nothing could change. Lila believed in the importance of having money to be respected in the neighbourhood.
A Amiga Genial (translated from the Italian – L’Amica Geniale – to Portuguese by Margarida Periquito) left me curious to know more about the lives of these two friends. Fortunately, there are still three more books in this series, which I suppose will clarify Lila’s desire to disappear.