I’ve heard people raving about these books for years (My Brilliant Friend is the first of four novels) so finally decided to check the first one out. The books tell the story of two young women growing up in a poor neighbourhood in 1950s Naples. Elena, the first person narrator, is both fascinated and a little scared of the tough and fearless Lena, who becomes both her best friend and her rival.
The neighbourhood in which the girls grow up is portrayed in starkly unsentimental terms: it is a harsh world, full of violence. The novel follows the two girls from age six to sixteen, when they stand on the brink of womanhood. Elena’s path out of the neighbourhood will be through education; Lena, the more intelligent of the two but unable to get further education, is married to a neighbour at sixteen.
While I recognize that the book is well-written, the two main characters didn’t engage me enough to want to read three more books about them. (I did pick up a copy of the last book and flip to the end to see how the saga ends). I don’t know if this is partly a factor of reading a novel in translation — I often find novels translated into English feel a little flat and distant to me, the language less immediate and vivid than it would be if I were able to read it in the author’s own language. That’s probably a shortcoming in me as a reader, but it does make it impossible for me to evaluate if I would have cared more about these characters if I’d been able to read Italian. Plenty of English speaking readers love these novels, though, so it might just be that these are not the books for me.