📖 🇮🇹 #22: A literary sensation from Italy

I finally read Elena Ferrante

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.

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My Brilliant Friend is the gripping first volume of Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Published in English by Europa Editions between 2012 and 2015, the coming-of-age quartet has sold an extraordinary 15 million copies worldwide and the books have been translated into 45 languages. According to this New York Times article, Ferrante’s popularity has inspired a new wave of female novelists in Italy and shaken up the country’s male-dominated literary establishment. Ferrante’s success has also prompted an outpour of interest in her translator Ann Goldstein and, by extension, in translated literature. If you haven’t already jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon, it’s about time you did.

Set in a poor neighbourhood in Naples in the 1950s, My Brilliant Friend introduces us to Elena Greco, a woman in her mid-sixties who is looking back on her lifelong friendship with Lila Cerullo. Despite inhabiting a world in which money is scarce and education is considered a privilege, especially for girls, Elena and Lena form a bond based on their shared intelligence and a desire to escape their oppressive, violent circumstances.

We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.

Though both girls are unusually clever, it is Lila who impresses their teachers by learning to read and write before anyone else in the class. The girls’ friendship is steered by an urgent sense of competition; one that sees both Elena and Lila use their jealousy of one another as motivation to do better. It is this rich and deeply-felt dynamic which is at the centre of My Brilliant Friend.

Whilst Lila is the dominant friend, dragging Elena towards danger on more than one occasion, it is Elena who is afforded more opportunities in life. After just a few years of formal education, Lila is taken out of school to work in her father’s shoe repair shop, whilst Elena is allowed to continue learning. Suddenly Elena, who has always been second best, finds herself in a position to make top of the class. Lila, in response, teaches herself Greek and Latin.

My Brilliant Friend is a completely charming read, which ascribes due power and complexity to young female friendships. In just 336 pages, Ferrante made me fall in love with both Elena and Lila and, though I felt the novel’s many secondary characters could have been more fleshed out, I know I’ll be reading the rest of the quartet.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2011)

More books by Italian authors:

  • Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

  • The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini, tr. Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood

  • Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco, tr. Virginia Jewiss

  • Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri, tr. Katherine Gregor

  • The Girl at the Door by Veronica Raimo, tr. Stash Luczkiw

  • Farewell, Ghosts by Nadia Terranova, tr. Ann Goldstein

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Ann Marsh for her recommendation for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!