Lila Cerullo has gone missing.
“She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. 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.”
And her childhood friend Elena Greco is angry and sets out to write down their story. Not quite the typical reaction, but Lila has made it pretty clear that she doesn’t want to be found. Elena begins with their childhood in a small, poor Naples town, where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
Even at the age of eight, Lila is one force of a firecracker. And Elena, who narrates their story, is devoted to her but often unsure of her own place in the world. Lila, “that terrible, dazzling girl” takes the lead, but as Elena explains, “dazzling to me. To our classmates Lila was only terrible”, essentially the most hated child in the school and neighbourhood.
Both Elena and Lila do well in school although it comes more naturally to brilliant Lila, but she is unable to continue with her education (it is the 1950s and girls are deemed more useful helping out at home or out working). She begins to help her father, the shoemaker, along with her brother. But there’s always something lurking under her surface:
“Lila was malicious: this, in some secret place in myself, I still thought. She had shown me not only that she knew how to wound with words but that she would kill without hesitation, and yet those capacities now seemed to me of little importance. I said to myself: she will release something more vicious, and I resorted to the word ‘evil’, an exaggerated word that came to me from childhood tales. But if it was a childish self that unleashed these thoughts in me, they had a foundation of truth. And in fact, it slowly became clear not only to me, who had been observing her since elementary school, but to everyone, that an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila.”
The two friends’ lives veer off in different directions. Elena’s story mostly revolves around her schooling, which, in a neighbourhood where few attend high school, goes largely unnoticed. She imagines Lila’s life being grander than hers, working at the shoe shop:
“Above all, I came home with the impression that, not spending my days in a shoemaker’s shop, having for a father a banal porter instead, I was excluded from a rare privilege.”
I feel like I ought to be telling you more about the plot, which follows the two girls as they grow into their teenaged years, boys and all, but it’s not really a plot that makes for a brief summary. Plus as the first book of a trilogy, Ferrante has only told us about their childhood and teenaged lives. And I’m still waiting to find out what else happens. I really enjoyed her use of what seemed like the whole community, but the number of characters can be a bit overwhelming and the index of characters does come in handy. This is the first book by Ferrante that I’ve read, and it is also the first in a trilogy, and her affecting writing, her subtly crafted story of these two friends (and especially that small act at the end of My Brilliant Friend that startlingly changes everything) makes me want to read the rest of the (yet to be published?) series, as well as her other books.
Elena Ferrante’s works
- L’amore molesto (Nasty Love – 1992)
- I giorni dell’abbandono (The Days of Abandonment – 2002)
- La frantumaglia (2003)
- La figlia oscura (The Lost Daughter – 2006)
- La spiaggia di notte (The Beach at Night – 2007)