Review: L'Amie prodigieuse, by Elena Ferrante
I've finally read this book (the French translation of My Brilliant Friend, which is originally by an Italian author who is so notoriously private Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym), so I'm, by all accounts, massively late to the party - and unfortunately I think that affected the way I approached and engaged with this story. I think this is one of those books that I would have liked a lot more if I'd read it without having listened to it hyped so much before I finally got around to it.
First things first, I should stipulate that I definitely will read the following 3 books in the stories - as the thing that I think Ferrante does best is create a compelling, gripping story that manages to give a pretty incisive critique of the society of the narrator lives in, considering that her narrator is a child for the entirety of the novel. The fact that she's splitting the story of a complicated friendship over a lifetime over 4 books, and is finding a way to weave in criticism of the Camorra (Neapolitan mafia), is also very clever writing as it means the stakes and the momentum of the story is appropriately sustained - everything can be given proper weight instead of having to skip and summarize to narrow everything into one novel and thereby lessening the stakes because of the patchy quality of the narrative. So, yes, my interest is piqued, and I will be following up the series, but more for the stake of the story than the quality of the writing.
Again - I think this suffered from the hype, because it has been so lauded by so many people, I was expecting it to be brilliant, lyrical writing and incisive commentary and that the relationship between the two main characters would be beyond complex and nuanced and layered. Maybe the translation* I read was less than stellar, but I didn't get any of the joy out of the writing itself that I thought I would get.
*I try, whenever possible, to read translations of any books written in Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese) in French. I don't know why I do this, other than I've managed to convince myself that, since these languages are all Latinate languages, the writing will share senses of tenor and tone more easily than translations across language groups. I have read one book on linguistics and so obviously I am now an expert, and that is why my justification is appropriate.
Anyway. I found the writing style a bit flat, and if anything a bit boring - oftentimes I'd be reading a few paragraphs before realizing that nothing about the language had grabbed my attention enough for me to actually focus on the story, so I had to go back and reread the few pages I'd zoned out on. And I wasn't particularly compelled by the relationship between Elena, the narrator, and her childhood friend Lila - I think Ferrante is trying to explore the complexity of toxic female friendships from childhood onwards, and I definitely see what she's trying to do, but I wasn't particularly interested in either the narrator or Lila. I think the study of society that Ferrante is doing is far more interesting, compelling and clever than the character study of the girls, as both Elena and Lila come across as rather one-dimensional, and limited to one overly emphasized character trait: Lila is brilliant (she is the brilliant friend of the title) and, quite honestly, mean-spirited; and Elena is, quite frankly, a bit boring. Maybe these two characters become more fully-fleshed and compelling in the latter books, and I will be reading them to find out, but unfortunately, on a first read, this book doesn't live up to the hype for me.
But, as mentioned above, the story and the societal study were fascinating, and I am looking forward to following the path these characters go on as they grow older.
As it is, I know I am massively in the minority on this one, so if anybody wants to convince me otherwise I am willing to be convinced - and if someone does want to confirm that the series picks up after the first book, I would also like to hear that, please.