My Brilliant Friend Summary

Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend

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My Brilliant Friend Summary

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My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, is the first novel in her Neapolitan Quartet, which follows the lives of two friends, Elena and Lila, who grow up in a working class neighborhood near Naples in the 1950s. The novel opens with the revelation that Raffaello Carullo—Lila—has disappeared, fulfilling an earlier expressed wish. Her childhood friend, Elena, decides to tell Lila’s story, both in an attempt to give some account of her life and to challenge her ability to disappear.

The novel then moves backwards in time to the 1950s, when the girls first met in elementary school at age six. Elena, the daughter of a porter at City Hall, had a difficult relationship with her mother and school was something of a refuge for her. Lila, whose own mother was illiterate, taught herself to read at the precocious age of three and dazzled her classmates with her academic ability.

When they are seven Elena—or Lenú—and Lila’s friendship is cemented when Lila throws her friend’s doll into the basement of the local gangster, Don Achille. Elena retaliates by throwing Lila’s doll to the same fate. Despite their fear of this disreputable man, the two girls agree to approach Don Achille and ask for their dolls back. Don Achille tells them that he doesn’t know what happened to their dolls, but he does give them some money instead. After this, the girls are best friends, although this doesn’t mean that their relationship is always an easy one. Their friendship often seems characterized by jealousy; concern about who is prettier or more popular than the other, but this jealousy never really threatens their friendship until Lila is forced to leave school.

While Elena’s parents allow her to continue her education into middle school, for Lila’s parents, her value as a worker is more important than her education. This is a bitter disappointment to Lila, and is made worse by the difference in her friend’s circumstances. However, even this divergence in their situation can’t undo the emotional connection between Lila and Elena and Lila even tutors her friend in the lessons she herself cannot take.

By the end of the novel, Elena is one of only two children in her neighborhood who is still in school, pointing both to her relative privilege and how common it was for young people—and especially young women—to be denied educational opportunities. In the tough, working class neighborhood the novel is set in, labor is much more important than learning.

Lila meanwhile has decided to channel her ambition into her family’s business, which she would like to transform into a shoe-making—rather than just shoe-repair—business. In order to realize this dream, she has agreed to marry Stefano Carracci, the successful proprietor of the town’s grocery store and Don Achille’s son. Stefano, Lila hopes, can help her achieve her ambitions. Lila’s decision to marry once again marks the different trajectories of her life and Elena’s.

While Elena is enjoying an increasingly sexual relationship with Antonio Cappuccio, she is secretly harboring feelings for Nino Sarratore, a more academically inclined boy, whose family was forced to leave the town when his father’s affair with Antonio’s mother was discovered. For Elena, marriage is a distant prospect and not a particularly happy one as she watches her friend marry a man who has betrayed her.

For, at the end of the novel, Lila discovers that Stefano has gifted a pair of shoes she made to a man she hates: Marcello Solaro; a man who relentlessly pursued Lila and who even went so far as to use his mob connections to try to persuade her to marry him. Elena knows that her friend can never forgive Stefano and that her marriage is over before it has even begun.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, My Brilliant Friend details a deeply traditional, working class environment that is resistant to change, whose inhabitants’ lives are deeply entangled and where the threat of violence is ubiquitous. The novel covers a period of approximately ten years; from when Elena and Lila meet at school, aged six, to when Lila gets married at sixteen. The novel is set in a Neapolitan, working class neighborhood and is concerned with issues of gender, class and place. While Ferrante offers a textured and nuanced portrait of the young women’s friendship, it is not sentimental in tone and persistently addresses the issue of jealousy between two young women whose affection for each other ultimately overcomes their competition for the limited opportunities available to them. Their lives are very much dominated by men, as evinced by the fact that Lila decides to marry in order to realize her business ambitions. The fact that her schooling was cut short is a bitter disappointment to her and the differences between her life and Elena’s make clear just what education could mean to a young woman at that time. In fact, Elena’s ability to learn grammatical Italian, rather than just the Neapolitan dialect she speaks at home, affords her both a literal and class mobility, as she is able to travel outside of Naples, and even to find work during the summer. This ability to travel is reflective of the greater opportunities available to Elena, while Lila is actually reluctant to leave her home. This reluctance seems to have been ultimately overcome, as suggested by her mysterious disappearance at the beginning of the novel, which prompts Elena to recount the history of her friendship with Lila. The knowledge of her future disappearance, as well as the revelation of Stefano’s betrayal, will make the question of “what happened next” a pressing one for every reader.