annotation by Lorinda Toledo
Elena Ferrante is an Italian author whose latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, is a character-driven story with a plot that is relatively quiet yet rich. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is set in motion by a mysterious disappearance. Motivated by this mystery, the narrator, Elena Grecco—called Lenú—sits down to write the entire story of her life-long friendship with her vanished friend, Lila. Imbued with the gift of perspective, the narrator reflects on the 1950s childhood and adolescence of the two friends. While Ferrante does many things well in this book, I believe one of the main ways she creates a successful novel is through precise characterization of the protagonists, as well as the minor characters.
While Lenú is the narrator, Lila is arguably the more fascinating protagonist in the story. Because we have only a first person narrator, and therefore do not know what is going on in Lila’s mind, the eccentrically intelligent friend becomes a marvelous mystery to the reader in the same way she is to Lenú. Ferrante establishes the singular bond between these two protagonists at the outset when Lenú introduces the reader to Lila, who’s real name is “…Rafaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over (loc. 103).
Ferrante illustrates the life-long nature of the girls’ friendship beautifully, as in this scene early in the book when as children they bravely approach the house of Don Achille, a man with a reputation as the town ogre, to retrieve the dolls Lila has purposely dropped into his basement through a window: “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was…She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand” (loc. 171). Lila is simultaneously a solitary outcast and the most beloved in the town. She consistently acts according to her own, highly intelligent mind, which is frequently in opposition to the status quo. As a result, she regularly pushes Lenú outside her comfort zone and on to success. Lila’s character grows and changes quite a bit throughout the book, but what always remains is the intrigue, or brilliance, of her persona.
Lenú and Lila grew up in a small, impoverished town in Naples, which is where most of the story takes place. Even Lenú’s characterization is largely dictated by that of Lila, as in this scene where, as an excellent student, she has received the honor of an island vacation where she can think and rest. It’s something that is unheard of in the poor town she’s from, and is also her first time outside Naples: “I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance” (loc. 2694). Throughout the wave-like ups and downs of the novel’s plot, Lenú consistently describes this type of conflicted love, frustration, and doubt about herself. Lila, in effect, has determined who Lenú is.
There are many other characters in this novel, as well. So many in fact, that there is an “Index of Characters” at the beginning of the book (loc. 16) that the reader can easily refer back to. However, I found that it was rarely necessary because of Ferrante’s skill with creating memorable characterization of each of these relatively minor but recurring personas. There’s Marcello Solara, who falls in love with Lila after she holds a shoemaker’s knife to his neck (loc. 1626). The intelligent Nino Sarratore is the railroad worker/poet’s son and also Lenú’s main love interest (loc. 601). There’s Gigliola Spagnuolo, the smart, pretty baker’s daughter who in many ways becomes Lenú’s main rival (loc. 2501). One of the most memorable characters is Melina Cappuccio, the crazed widow and town outcast who everyone shuns except for Lila (loc. 295). These minor characters and their relationships with Lenú and Lila often say as much about the protagonists as their own actions do of themselves.
There are far too many characters to mention them all, but one of my favorite characterizations is of Lenú’s mother:
The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly—she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me (loc. 387).
While it is expanded upon throughout the course of the story, this demonstrates the level of characterization in the novel well. Although Lenú’s mother is a minor character, Ferrante instills the relationship with a complexity of villainy and sympathy beginning with the choices she makes in the narrator’s description of the mother.
As a fiction writer, what I appreciate that Ferrante has achieved nearly unlimited plot potential by populating the world of her novel with well-developed characters. Furthermore, she is able to sustain consistent and ever-deepening characterization over the entire course of the novel. The characterization—particularly that of Lenú and Lila—becomes the main aspect of the plot. This is a powerful skill for me as a writer to learn, because much of my writing seeks to explore the nature of relationships through literature, without turning the story into melodrama.
In My Brilliant Friend, the external conflicts are many and the stakes are high, but they feel secondary, existing only to serve this exploration of the relationship between the two girls. In this way, Ferrante achieves a realistic and multi-faceted meditation on the nature of female friendship.