My Brilliant Friend

9781609450786_p0_v1_s260x420book by Elena Ferrante

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.

Easter Parade

9780312278281_p0_v1_s114x166book by Richard Yates
Annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Richard Yates is an author who is not afraid of ambitious stories.  He has an innate understanding of the deepest fears of the human psyche, and the human struggle to find happiness and meaning.  Through carefully crafted scenes, he shows – in deftly woven emotion and external plot – that despite the Grimes sisters’ best efforts, they cannot escape the burden of their parents’ legacy.  The Easter Parade is almost a novella (only 180 pages) but within that short space, Yates guides the reader through an innately paced 50 years of complex life for two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes.

The story is ostensibly told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, but the viewpoint is actually Emily’s.  Five years her sister’s junior, Emily suffers from a fear of being alone, and this fear, along with her innocence, colors her perspective of the story throughout the book.  Like Sarah, Emily’s entire life is shaped by her parents divorce; and, from the book’s opening line, Yates succinctly sets up the narrative to be that of a long history:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce” (295).

As a result, the reader is not confused or distracted wondering what this story is about; nor is the reader jarred by the rapidity of the sisters growing older.

The book is divided in three parts, which helps moderate the passage of time.  This format allows Yates to jump ahead many years and then catch the reader up in just a sentence or two:

“Whenever Emily thought about her sister over the next few years – and it wasn’t often – she reminded herself that she’d done her best” (421).

Part One covers the girls’ childhood and adolescence, all the way up until both their marriages.  Part Two covers how their marriages affected their adult lives, and what sort of people they’ve become in order to avoid making their parent’s mistakes.  Emily divorces her first husband, after he confesses in lewd, unfeeling detail that he hates her body because of his own inability to perform sexually.  Instead, she pursues a life as a career woman and has a string of men who come and go over the years.  Sarah, on the other hand, sees marriage as a refuge, and hopes that it will save her:

“I’ve always thought of marriage as being – well, sacred…I was a virgin when I got married and I’ve been a virgin ever since” (416).

She invests in this belief even after it is revealed that her husband, a handsome man who Emily once lusted after, has been beating her “…once or twice a month for about – well, twenty years” (413).  Part Three covers the downward spiral of Sarah and Emily.  It is the reckoning of how the choices they’ve made play out at the end of their lives.

Despite Yates’ promise in the opening line that the Grimes sisters’ story will not be a happy one, the narrative twists and turns with high and low points, giving the reader the sensation of riding a car climbing up a winding path toward the top of a mountain.  You stay despite the fact that you’ve already been told that without fail, the car is going to drive off the cliff.  Rather than being a spoiler, it creates built-in tension.  Each chapter makes a neat little arc that begins with a new stage of the girls’ life.  For example, chapter two begins with the girls having reached puberty — “It was Sarah who gave Emily her first information about sex” (301) — and then ends with a pivotal moment that leads to the next stage in the next chapter:  “They were married in the fall of 1941…”(315).  Yates also tends to maximize his use of the seasons to indicate the passage of time and to create foreshadowing; in this case indicating that Sarah is about to enter an unhappy marriage — more like a brutal winter than a bright summer.

Yates provides enough morbid clues along the way that when bad things happen, tension builds and draws the reader in even more.  For example, a tackle shop sign bearing the words “Blood and Sandworms” (349) is mentioned as the sole distinct thing about the town in which Sarah lives, and it is the perfect metaphor for the life she has with Tony and their three boys.  Tony is a brutal man, but no one aside from Emily ever acknowledges it – and even she ultimately prefers to look the other way in order to keep living her own life uninterrupted:

“If Sarah had left her husband she might want to stay with her sister for a while – maybe a long while – which would inconvenience Michael Hogan [Emily’s casual lover]” (416).

Still, Yates keeps the reader invested in the story because he provides enough glimmers of hope that you press on, thinking that things don’t seem all bad, maybe it will actually work out for these characters.  The most obvious example is the scene in Sarah and her sweetheart head out to the Easter Parade, dressed up and happy:

Emily and [her mother] watched from the windows as the open car rolled past on its way uptown – Tony turning briefly from the wheel to smile at them, Sarah holding her hat in place with one hand and waving with the other – and then they were gone…
…The picture came out the following Sunday in a pageful of other, less striking photographs.  The camera had caught Sarah and Tony smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine, with massed trees and a high corner of the Plaza hotel visible behind them…
…Emily knew how important it was to have as many copies as possible.  It was a picture that could be mounted and framed and treasured forever (314).

That is really what The Easter Parade is about – the hope that people cling to in their lives, just as the photo of Sarah and her soon-to-be betrothed represents a kind of mythology of life’s happiness for the Grimes sisters.

Yates shows in this novel that it is possible to encompass many years and layers of a characters life into one succinct tale.  As a writer, I often struggle to show the depth of a character’s life within the pages I have written, but it is what a good writer strives to do.  Not every book needs to cover a character’s entire life, but it is a skill to be able to do so.  Whether or not that is the case, it is essential that any written work is crafted to make use of all the various layers of a character’s life – whether it be through peripheral characters, family life, setting or seasons.  In The Easter Parade, Yates has mastered this, and as a result had created a skilled portrayal of the search for the meaning of life – and that is perhaps the most formidable task that any writer can hope to achieve.