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The Friction of Friendship: Review of Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”

November 8, 2018

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.

Blog Books We're Reading

Book Review: “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life”

October 11, 2018

by Rebecca Wesloh, 2018-19 Marketing Director

What are you afraid of? This is a central question to Megan Stielstra‘s book of essays, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. The collection was published in August of 2017 with some of the essays previously published in literary magazines, such as Guernica, Midnight Breakfast, and Great Lakes Review. The book examines fear through essays exploring her parents’ divorce, living abroad, gun violence, dissecting deer hearts, motherhood, relationships, teaching, what it means to have privilege, and, through it all, what fear is and what it means to be afraid. She makes frequent jumps in chronology, and in being free of a strict, linear structure she’s able to take the story where she needs to when she needs to. She is 10, she is 29, she is getting married, she is in middle school, she is on the bathroom floor crying after giving birth to her son, she is on a flight to visit her dad who is in the hospital having heart surgery again after another heart attack, she is a cook at Arby’s the summer before college and sticking her wrist into the fryer with the curly fries – just to be able to feel it. She is there, constantly present in each of these moments, all of them happening now. She carries this off with a terrific, wise, and often humorous voice. Her tone is caring and, at times, serious, but without ever taking herself too seriously. Her sentences flow beautifully and ache to be remembered and repeated.

In the first essay, Stielson’s roommate takes her to an art museum, and as they look at various paintings he asks her: “‘What do you see?’ […] ‘How was it made?’ ‘When was it made?’ ‘What was happening in the world when it was made?’ ‘How did what was happening influence what was being made?'” Stielson is publishing her book less than a year after Trump’s election and only a few months after the Women’s March. Within the past year there was the terrorist attack on the London Bridge and the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert. This is the context in which she is writing, one in which her son asks why their (transgender) friends can’t go the bathroom, in which open carry laws are in place on college campuses in Texas, in which the perpetrator of a sexual assault has their reputation deemed of more worth than the life of the victim. She used to have tornado drills in school. Now her son has active shooter drills. It is a time of fear, of shouting and yelling. Stielson understands that these circumstances are unsuitable for patience and call for screaming and shouting; she, herself, admits to crying as she reads the news on her laptop. But, Stielson still manages to open a civil discourse. As she says, “It doesn’t matter if the work is personal or political. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story or an essay. Some people will come after us no matter what we say. We might as well say things that matter.” She wants us to think, to actively interrogate our emotions and our fears. To feel the world and talk about what and who and how we see and what it means.

The book was made out of beauty and with a great deal of heart (deer, moose, pig, and human). It is a book that will stay with the reader long after the last words are read. Look at her essays, read them, and you will see a writer of great conscience, empathy, passion, and attention. Within the pages the reader is given hope, encouragement, and a quiet space in which to reflect on the world. Read on. What are you afraid of?