by Leah Bradford, 2018-19 Assistant Fiction Editor
Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo live in a poor neighborhood in Naples in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. They crave knowledge through a formal education, but they do not understand the structure of academia. They do not know what middle school is. Lila’s parents cannot afford it; she must work in her father’s shoe business. Elena’s family does not see the value in an education for a girl. This masterfully crafted bildungsroman shares the persistence of young girls as they mature toward adulthood.
In these two characters, I see a younger version of my grandmother.
After her mother’s heart attack, my grandmother needed to help support her family. She left school with a ninth-grade education.
Today, there is not a room in her home that does not contain a book.
In an interview with The New York Times, Ferrante comments on her connection with her characters: “The women in my stories are all echoes of real women who, because of their suffering or their combativeness, have very much influenced my imagination.” My Brilliant Friend is an intimate coming of age story that offers a powerful balance of uniqueness and repetition. We feel her stories because we have been here before.
Echoes of my grandmother’s persistence can be found in silhouettes of Elena and Lila. These are the women that we have been surrounded by for our entire lives. Ferrante writes that the women in her stories are “strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings.” Her novels explore the continuance of learning; her characters show fierce determination despite setbacks. This story conveys that growth cannot be done alone; we must persist with the help of our friends.
Ferrante establishes an environment where her protagonists’ aspirations, fights, falls, and accomplishments vividly depict the complexities of female friendship and advancement in a traditionally rooted world. The women aspire to do more and to be more than just the daughters and sisters of their fathers and brothers. Together they cultivate spaces where they may thrive. As Elena and Lila attempt to rise from their stations, they grow toward and away from each other. At times they share almost everything; then they don’t speak for months. They share their victories and their breakdowns. Her characters bare themselves to the page; they insist on being known. Ferrante’s novel leaves us with the sense that we know the characters. She creates a sense of surreal understanding and exposes cultural experiences which stay with us long after the book is closed. Many of us have lived these experiences. This is our story.