My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Book One)

91DOVo+2dtL“You’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

There is so much to dip in and dig out from My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante in this first book of the Neapolitan Quartet. In the story, the two playmates (Elena and Lila) were indispensable to each other; gradual transition and changes upon themselves were reflected furiously, relationships and point of views were prevalent; nervous conditions and circumstances were rioting and gnawing on the girls as they grew up at different stages as the plot was being developed. This is a very riveting and passionate story on childhood and adolescence that touched heavily on reality and reflected by norms. I admit I have not read many books in my life; apart from Wilkie Collins’s works I have never come across such a book which made my heart go racing through the pages. There was a euphoria to read this book and treasure it.

I was absolutely engrossed with the friendship in the story. The girls were not always individually but also assiduously exploring dimensions of expressions and empowerment together. The doubts and insecurity about themselves and the world that they lived in provided the backdrop of rivalries in different aspects not only against men but also between the themselves – They implicitly competed against each other on schooling, on physical aspects, perhaps also on love. Between them two were not the palpable fights, but was the not-so-harmonious rivalry in which social norms and insecurities about themselves set in to make someone closest to herself the competitor of and superiority of another. In this case, the ambivalent feelings to the one endeared and compatible to herself with that undertone of rivalry implied that the friendship itself was always in need for rebalancing.

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Love the caps taken from this adapted drama on HBO 🙂 Photo from The New York Times

She let me shine with a vivid light, she encouraged me to become more and more disciplined, more diligent, more serious. When Lila stopped misbehaving and effortlessly outdid me, the teacher praised me first, with moderation, and then went on to exalt her prowess. I felt the poison of defeat more acutely when it was Sarratore or Peluso who did better than me. If however, I came in second after Lila, I wore a meek expression of acquiescence. (p. 47)

Classes and studies are part of my favorite highlights in the book, especially the scene of that class competition between Lila, Elena, Enzo, Alfonso, and Nino. It is some kind of victorious feeling to read about the two main heroes answering teacher’s questions and emulated the boys of other classes with their smartness.

In the beginning of their friendship, Elena could not stand solitude a minute without Lila. Not with her parents and anyone guiding and inoculating her to copy one’s exemplary actions and to learn the good of another person of the same age, it was more of a voluntary and confused curiosity and fascination towards a girl who outstripped her academically in effortless strength and cleverness. Lila was a rebellious girl but she quickly became the new favorite student in the teacher’s class for her intellect. Her disposition entered into Elena’s mind and could not get her out of sight from the age of six. She somehow insinuated Elena to exert the secret and peerless strength, namely, endurance and diligence, in studies and in everything. Up until teenage years, Lila’s perseverance to be an autodidact in Latin and Greek that she borrowed books from the library illustrated the disposition rather to be seen as a betrayal and emulation upon the other as seen in Elena’s view in the beginning, but it was also a will, and an inquisitiveness, as Elena also found that, it was in fact the sharing of knowledge and tutelage from Lila that made her studies in school more complete and meaningful, rather than a grudge, a humdrum. It was a spark of light to be with Lila until she could have the self-indulgence and pleasure to study.

Blood. In general it came from wounds only after horrible curses and disgusting obscenities had been exchanged. That was the standard procedure. (p. 35)

At early stages, what also triggered her to stick to Lila was the agile legs of this little friend’s. Elena could not stand her mother – the hostility she first confronted in her little world. She had this kind of Little Hans in Freudian theory that by sticking to Lila’s pace, Elena could soon forget and escape her mother’s limping legs, her eyesight and control in her mind, to find her own soul asylum and security. As the friendship grew and getting to know Lila more, Elena fascination towards Lila grew stronger – when she was with Lila, “every disobedient act contained breathtaking opportunities”, (1) Lila’s rebellion towards the teacher actually led to her being discovered the intellectual capacities; (2) Lila’s stone fight with child bully and school repeater Enzo ultimately won over his admiration and respect; (3) the “expedition” to knock on Don Achille Carracci’s door proved that he did not appear to be the “fairy ogre” everyone was talking about in the neighborhood. In fact, Lila’s fearlessness and rebellion unintentionally embroiled and involved Elena in various incidents that led Elena discover another facade of the neighborhood which had gone unnoticed before; moreover, Lila provided her a shelter and a safe haven of which that her home had been wanted amidst the little tragic stricken world of violence, poverty, and insecurity. Elena at first envied Lila, but later got fascinated with, submitted and subservient to this slender and bony friend’s enigma – with them together, there was nothing to be afraid of. Elena desired to make Lila exclusive to herself without intervention, to be insulated from the outer world, although clearly this was not to be the case as they grew up.

As I watched, I understood conclusively that soon she would lose completely her air of a child-old woman, the way a well-known musical theme is lost when it’s adapted too fancifully. She had become shapely. Her high forehead, her large eyes that could suddenly narrow, her small nose, her cheekbones, her lips, her ears were looking for a new orchestration and seemed close to finding it. When she combed her hair in a ponytail, her long neck was revealed with a touched clarity. Her chest had small graceful breasts that were more and more visible. Her back made a deep curve before landing at the increasing taut arc of her behind. Her ankles were still too thin, the ankles of a child; but how long before they adapted to her now feminine figure? (p. 142)

As Elena had said, she loved correlations of the little convergence and divergence between herself and Lila; how one was always in joy could be in sorrows of another, even in physical aspect. It was not a pretentious or impressionable step, but Elena was exploring the ideas of how growing up would play a role upon herself and others. When Elena transited to teenage years, she felt a nuisance to this matter. The body let her see a different light but it turned out to be a dreadful feeling to see herself on the mirror. On the other hand, it was her first period that she found common grounds with other girls in the neighborhood. Physical aspect, not a choice within her control, but could be regarded as one’s properties, a liberty and sovereignty though it is tragic and pessimistic amid the environment surrounded by violence and patriarchy. On the other hand, Lila was still a wild and bony playmate. The crowd pressure put on Elena was making her proud that Lila was disoriented but it was until a time later that Elena felt the anguish that as her body grew, she did not own a man’s respects. When Lila was not in a desperate need for love, Elena started to imagine romance with other boys, and she got more male pleasure gaze. Girls’ jealousy of physical attraction is part of the rivalry in the book. However Elena also had a emphatic and symbiotic connection to Lila’s body, while she helped bathing and cleansing her friend’s body before the wedding, so that Stefano could “sully her in the course of the night”, the “only remedy against the pain I was feeling, that I would feel, was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do to me, at the same time, the exact same thing”.

We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books and that the books would make us rich. Wealth was still the glitter of gold coins stored in countless chests, but to get there all you had to go to school and write a book. (p.70)

Lila seemed to know, in the beginning, education was the way to climb upwards on the ladder of social mobility; however, she might not have the same opportunities as Elena. Elena’s parents did not entirely encourage Elena’s studies as regards the fees and expenses of schooling but she somehow had it; Lila, on the other hand, as the family business was under the strain, the norms regarding gender at home and outside was severe, although Lila had intellectual inspiration, she had not a chance to pursue. When Elena got to the teenage years, schooling and education became a matter of what Elena aspired to under the praises and encouragement, and was soon warmed to a pleasant habit that lead to her academic achievement. On the other hand, schooling and education was what Lila chased at the very beginning as an inquisitive child, she found the pleasure much earlier than Elena (was always ahead of Elena in everything); but also one of the reasons for that was to get out of the poverty cycle, nonetheless she failed of not having the opportunity, and it slipped through her fingers.

“The beauty of mind that Cerullo had from childhood didn’t find an outlet, Greco, and it has all ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it.” (p. 277)

From then on, Little Women was no longer valid to apply to herself. Accumulation of wealth became something according to Lila a metamorphosis achieving through the family business. That might be an evasion of not having the same opportunity as Elena in schooling and education, but more importantly it was the endeavors to succeed in the family business as in a way to strengthen herself, to be more unyielding to the underprivileged circumstances which she was facing, and more so, to desperately constrain and undermine the destructive disfigurement of her beloved brother as well as the family (dissolving margins, p. 176).

But to Lila, she has ever-changing features and decisions to undermine the forces of dissolving margins,

“He’s rich,” I said to her finally. But even as I said that I realized how the idea of the riches girls dreamed of was changing further. The treasure chests full of gold pieces that a procession of servants in livery would deposit in our castle when we published a book like Little Women – riches and fame – had truly faded. Perhaps the idea of money as a cement to solidify our existence and prevent it from dissolving, together with the people who were dear to us, endured. But the fundamental feature that now prevailed was concreteness, the daily gesture, the negotiation. This wealth of adolescence proceeded from a fantastic, still childish illumination – the designs for extraordinary shoes – but it was embodied in the petulant dissatisfaction of Rino, who wanted to spend like a big shot, in the television, in the meals, and in the ring with which Marcello wanted to buy a feeling, and, from step to step, in that courteous youth Stefano, who sold groceries, had a red convertible, spent forty-five thousand lire like nothing, framed drawings, wished to do business in shoes as well as in cheese, invested in leather and a workforce, and seemed convinced that he could inaugurate a new era of peace and well-being for the neighborhood: it was, in short, wealth that existed in the facts of every day, and so was without splendor and without glory. (p. 248)

At this point, I am still trying to analyse and expanding the ideas of dissolving margins in Lila’s case. I would need to find out more in the next three volumes.

“The mind’s dream have ended up under the feet.” (p. 314)

To believe that a man was kind, was ambitious and adamant in his voice, that he was always denying in his actions to be the victimized offspring of a murdered father, and was determined to instill the atmosphere of prosperity and “new era” brought Lila to be married to a new rising grocer at the age of sixteen. In the end of the first book, Elena could be seen as herself getting some intellectual achievement and even surpassed Lila. The expectations she had for Lila failed as she increasingly longed to get out of the neighborhood. The ideas of wealth, the marriage between Lila and Stefano, were the turning point that Elena started to get more observant and awareness of what her heart craved to pursue under the shadow of Lila. But I know even as that, Lila should not be abandoned by Elena; whatever Lila had become could not change how Elena viewed Lila: she could still be the one to astonish and inspire Elena like she was as a child. She was not losing the illumination, she was not fading and being contaminated but only looking for ways to adapt, change, invent, and empower herself as well as Elena.

As reader, I hope that when reading the second volume, my emotions would not get affected by Elena’s narratives with her irascibility toward Lila, and not to take sides with any one of them – whatever happened to the friendship, nobody would be the one being held culpable but it was the circumstances that were too hostile and inevitable for them to have made such decisions. I hope to find Lila more lovable, more affectionate towards Elena, and find out how Lila perceived Elena as her most “brilliant friend”, although rivalries and conflicts would still be setting in.  I am very much looking forward to reading the second volume.

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Wong Sarah

Making reading the essential part of my life

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