November 4, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante [book]

This book had so much hype I should have known it was going to be split into four parts. Books are the new movies, apparently--they're not really successful until they spawn their own franchise.

Everything I heard about the book before reading it talked about this "amazing friendship" between the two main characters, girls who grow up together in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Italy. I went in expecting a girly lovefest. Instead, I got Mean Girls, but not funny.

These girls are not friends. At least, not in any way I would consider a friendship. Luckily, it's 2015 and we now have a word to describe such a relationship: frenemies. The main girl, Elena (aka Lenuccia, aka Lenu) is a whiny, self-esteem-deprived girl who can't see anything beyond wanting to be as cool as her "best friend" Rafaella (aka Lina, aka Lila because everyone in this f*cking needs a nickname or two, apparently). Lenu does nothing but compare herself to Lila and surprise! always finds herself coming up short. Wah wah.

Lila, on the other hand, is a snobby, self-absorbed, bitch. Even at the beginning of the book, in which the girls are 6 years old. Especially when she's 6. Granted, the book is written in the first person view of Lenu, so it's hard to say exactly what Lila's motives are, but her actions portray her to be the kind of person really no one would want to be friends with. So the book is sort of baffling that way.

The entire childhood of Lenu and Lila is quite the task to get through. Between their not-really-friendship and a list of characters befitting a Shakespeare play, I'm not sure I would have persevered through the first third of this book if I didn't feel so embarrassed about showing up to book club unprepared.

Luckily, things pick up quite a bit as the book skips ahead to their adolescence. Lila becomes slightly less annoying, though I can't say the same for Lenu. (I'll never be as good as Lila! I need to prove I'm better than her! Sigh.) And the action heats up with interest from boys and shadowy mob-type families with lots of money.

The story is that "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym because it is a true story and the woman who wrote it doesn't want the mob coming to kill her because of what she wrote about them. With the amount of detail in the book about the location, people, and family histories, it's certainly a believable story. But then again, we live in a cynical enough world where it's equally believable that her agent crafted this story to generate buzz for the book. Either way, the world Ferrante creates and describes is so rich in detail you can practically watch the story in your head as if it were a movie.

So just as I began to get interested in the story, it ended--on a cliffhanger, of course. It's the first in a series of four books, after all. I can't say I'm going to run out and read the remaining books, but I'm certainly not opposed to finding out how the story ends.

Final word: Surprisingly engaging, considering none of the characters are likeable. None.

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