In My Brilliant Friend, the opening volume of Italian author Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels, everything starts with a phone call. Thee middle-aged son of a friend Elena Greco has known since elementary school calls to tell her his mother has been missing for two weeks. He’s searched everywhere for her. Could she possibly be staying in Turin with her friend Elena, he asks, although he knows as well as Elena does that his mother has never left the city of Naples where she was born.
“Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her,” Elena advises him.
The son is stunned. And though at first Elena’s lack of interest in searching for the lost friend she calls Lila seems as strange to a reader as it did to the son, Elena knows Lila’s deepest secret.
“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace. . . (s)he never had in many any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide. . . She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.”
Despite her advice to Lila’s son, Elena isn’t willing to lose her friend so easily. But rather than find her bodily, Elena will recreate in words, with Proustian detail, almost every moment of their friendship, their life together.
By the way, don’t let the lovely wedding picture on the book’s cover mislead you, as it did me and some of my book group friends, into thinking this is a romance. Or a travelogue. The sexuality in My Brilliant Friend, even when it ditches the cringe-worthy awkwardness of a teenage diary, is often creepy, often brutal, and always exploitive. Neither do the characters show much interest in the scenic wonders of southern Italy. Ferrante’s novel is brutally honest, not beautiful.
As the first volume of her four-volume (to date) Neapolitan novel series, My Brilliant Friend recreates the life of Lila and Elena as girls growing up in a desperately impoverished neighborhood of Naples in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Elena Greco is the oldest child of a porter at the city hall and his wife. Her friend Raffaella Cerullo (called Lila only by Elena) is the daughter of a shoemaker.
Elena is a pretty child with blonde curls, well-behaved and eager to please everyone. Especially her teacher. She terms herself the smartest member of their elementary school class, just learning to read. The smartest, that is, until the teacher discovers that Lila – “that small dark-haired, dark-eyed child,” the disruptive member of their class who is perpetually getting into trouble -- has already taught herself to read.
As the two girls go through their childhoods, it is Elena who becomes the devoted follower, Lila the leader, the one who seems destined to be the “brilliant friend” of the story’s title.
Both finish elementary school brilliantly and, at a point when most of their classmates leave school to help support their families, both seem destined for the higher levels of education that may allow them to escape the poverty of their surroundings. But although Lila’s family seems the (comparatively) more affluent, her parents refuse to let her advance beyond elementary school, while Elena eventually enters a prestigious classical high school.
It is now Lila who becomes the beauty of the pair. Desperate to shun the unwanted attention of a son of the local mafiosa, she plots marriage to another young man of their neighborhood. It looks like an alliance destined to trap her forever in the violent, ignorant neighborhood of her childhood. But wait – there’s more to the story – three more volumes, in fact: The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child – all now available in English translation.
Lila isn’t the only woman missing from these volumes. Her creator, Elena Ferrante, is possibly the world’s most notoriously missing author. She writes under a pseudonym, has never been photographed (at least, not as Elena Ferrante) and makes no personal appearances. “I believe,” she wrote to her editor, “that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” And so, like Lila, she disappears. . . into her books.