As much as I fancy eccentric taste and being glamorously out of sync with my contemporaries, on the heels of My Brilliant Friend (the novel) and The Lost Daughter (the film), it turns out I love Elena Ferrante. Just like everyone else.
The prose in My Brilliant Friend is unmentionable. This is a comment meant as praise. Ferrante is not experimental, not on a sentence-level and not on a novel-level. The premise is straightforward: this is a story about friendship; the characters are working class; the timeline is linear. The concerns are quotidian: money, wealth, dating, sex, neighborhood politics, education, growing up, finding your voice. In one scene, Elena (the narrator) is praised in class for an academic essay:
And only as I listened did I realize what I had tried to do in those months whenever I had to write: to free myself from artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila’s in the Ischia letter. When I heard my words in the teacher’s voice, with Professor Galiani listening and silently nodding agreement, I realized that I had succeeded. Naturally, it wasn’t Lila’s way of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary.
It’s difficult to put your finger on what exactly Ferrante is achieving—and how—but the words that come to mind are “solid,” “direct,” “spare.” Ferrante doesn’t need flourishes. Flourishes would distract from what matters. Like Elena’s, Ferrante’s prose is simple—it isn’t trying to be anything other than what it is. Ferrante isn’t trying to play or challenge or reinvent the wheel. She is only trying to tell a story—and in doing so authentically, an ordinary story becomes something more. It becomes beautiful.
My only criticism is that the pacing at the beginning of the novel is a bit slow. For the first 50 pages or so, I considered reading something else. That said, I tend not to love narratives told from a child’s point of view—and as soon as Elena and Lila left childhood for adolescence, I was riveted. Which is to say: I suspect my ambivalence about the novel’s beginning is a me problem, rather than a Ferrante problem.
I wasn’t sure when I started My Brilliant Friend if I intended to read the entire quartet. When I finished the first installment last night, “if” became a question of “when.” I knew I would definitely read all four novels, but I wondered if I should refrain from reading them all at once … maybe it’s better to break up such a long sequence with other books, i.e., literary palate cleansers? Today, after eight-plus hours in a Ferrante-free world, I’ve made my decision. I’ll be bingeing until further notice.
I was secretly convinced that I would truly exist only at the moment when my signature, Elena Greco, appeared in print. [Because I am not-so-secretly convinced of the same.]