Earlier this year, I grumbled that it had been the first year that I've been following the Tournament of Books that I hadn't discovered a wonderful new-to-me writer that I'd never heard of. But I did note that before the Tournament, I hadn't heard of Elena Ferrante, but I hadn't gotten to her book before the Tournament, so maybe she was my find. Since I didn't get to her before the Tournament, it made sense to start with the first of the four Neopolitan books, rather than the third one that was a contestant.
Guess what? The Tournament--belatedly--scores again. I just finished reading Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, and I'm knocked out. I will say that the cover art is misleading; combined with the title, you might expect a sweet, charming tale. This is anything but.
The book is narrated by Elena Greco, who recounts her late childhood/early adolescence growing up in a small Naples, Italy neighborhood after WWII. Her best friend is Lila. Elena recounts their past from her present vantage as someone much older, but there is no golden, rosy haze around her memories. Lila is a difficult person to be friends with at times. The other kids in the neighborhood are often violent and mean. The small community definitely has a social hierarchy, with the well-off neighbors at the top.
Elena's narration starts slowly and builds momentum as she carries her and Lila's story through their late teens. Both girls are very bright, but Lila's family can't support her going to school beyond elementary, so she goes to work in her father's shoe repair shop with the dream of designing shoes and making a lot of money to escape the poverty her family is stuck in. Elena's parents are not well-to-do either, but in spite of having misgivings about education being a waste, find ways to keep her in school through high school, something very few kids in her neighborhood have the opportunity to do.
This is a blow to Lila, and it sets off a string of events that have long-term effects. Elena recounts everything with a laserlike precision. There's a lot of telling in this book instead of showing, but it works--it's Elena telling, and she's using the vantage point of distance to analyze the things that happened, showing us how and why events roll out the way they do.
The writing is very stylized, and I don't know how much of that is due to the translation. Nevertheless, this close look at these two young women and how they start to mature is so far from the usual adorable coming-of-age story that I was riveted. I'll definitely head for the next book. Interestingly, I feel like My Brilliant Friend stands on its own just fine, but there's no question the ending sets the reader up for the next book.