My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This book came out in 2016 and has been read and discussed endlessly since then. I have read it twice now, once when it came out and once for a book club discussion and I have to say that it is a bit of a marmite book which is one of the reasons it is such a good choice.

Ferrante tells the story of two girls, Lila and Elena, growing up in Naples in the 1950s and their push/pull friendship. I have to say that I was gripped right from the start with the pure rage in the prologue when Elena discovers that Lila has finally at the age of sixty six managed to disappear completely, as she said she would.

I was really angry.

We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

p23 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

And I think that sets the scene perfectly; the competitiveness between the two girls throughout their friendship, particularly when Elena carries on in education and Lila has to leave school. I’m not going to review the book in the ‘usual’ way because there are plenty of better writers than me who have done just that such as this one so what I would like to do is ask the questions I would like answered at a book club discussion – and if you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

  • How does the patriarchy, which is never ending in the book, shape both the characters and the story? I ask this because I think the complexity of being a woman in a post-facist Italy shows that they are still constrained. It is violent even down to the slightest glance that is taken the wrong way, the young men vie with each other over cars , clothes, money and the girls are grabbed and pulled into cars. Some of this patriarchy is handed down from parents to children such as the hate for Don Achille the loan shark who is a figure of hate even after he is murdered. The effect of this male dominance is to make the friendship between Lila and Elena a little island away from it all but eventually it affects them. The women copy the men, Lila ends up carrying a knife for her own safety, women fight with other women and everything becomes violent. Even the rage at the beginning of the book. And so my second question here is; Did Lila kill Don Achille?
  • Why is one of the main characters called Elena Greco or Elena the Greek? How about Don Achille, Achille being the french or italian for the Greek mythological hero Achilles. Why such obvious greek references? Achilles fought in the war of Troy and was the bravest and strongest of them all, not something that really goes with Don Achille’s character. He was, however, proud and bad-tempered and that would fit better. But Don Achille is the origin of everything violent and terrifying in their world. Is the book (or are all four books) an Epic, not in the grand sense but in the literary sense where they tell of creating and destroying of empires and states? Are epics masculine? They certainly feel like they are. There are other references such as when their neighour, Melina, was left by her lover Donato, Elena says:

“He and Melina were overcome by passion, like Dido and Aeneas,” 

I also think that The Story of Don Achille is a bit like the Labyrinth with the the monster at the heart of it, especially when Elena and Lila throw each other’s dolls down into the cellar and then dare each other to go and fetch them. The descending in to the unknown, the cellar described as a beast with its

cold breath … its threatening noises, rustling, squeaking, scraping.


The story is littered with times when the two girls join hands and then when they don’t and it feels like this visible sign of friendship is the thread that leads them to the heart of the maze, Don Achille, their neighbourhood and Naples. Do you have any thoughts about this?

  • How is this story about a city or country undergoing momentous change? This probably links back to the Epic question. I can only answer this very simply in that Elena represents modernity through continuing education and Lila represents tradition by having to leave school early or at least before she wants to and at the age of 16 marries. Perhaps the rage that Elena feels at the start of the book is the fact that tradition is being written out of Naples or Italy’s history. This is probably much too simple so please help me gain a greater understanding here.

What have you read recently?

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