Our relatives arrived in the States from Italy between 1900 and 1921. My maternal grandma and grandpa lived in the same house with us. So reading My Brilliant Friend, I wondered whether these two inseparable main characters were anything like people I knew when I was growing up in Connecticut.
I knew about dialects because my grandparents teased one another about them – one sounded like a peasant, another person sounded like a rich man. They laughed about this. In Italy “Il Duce” had tried to enforce one Italian language, but he failed. The language issue was part of a larger plan – to place power-mongering peasants in charge of some land and watch them fall apart.
Elena and Lila, the best friends in the novel, grew up in families rich in history, in tradition, and a grueling need to work to the point of exhaustion. Some were moody, out-of-control with anger. Some of the women were lame, or blind, and they loved/hated their daughters. A few ended their days in the mental hospital. Some men ended up in prison after a bar fight.
In Italy, school was not thought to essential, particularly for girls, who were to prepare for marriage and motherhood. Here in the United States, free public education had been required for many decades. The girls manages to manipulate themselved into school, with just the right portion of false humility and sheer craftiness. Lila absorbed the fine details of Greek and Latin, and pretended not to care at all about her grades. Elena obsessed about her school work and lost sleep wondering if she would get some attention from the beloved, ruthless teacher. Lila, the mystic, had deep, lengthy mood swings, and she was very fearful. On the other hand, she spoke slang, and she had a full vocabulary of insults to rain down upon anyone who would mess with her head.
One of the fathers was killed by a neighbor who was jealous; the people in the neighborhood tread lightly around them.. Lila was afraid her brother Rino would become a monster. Elena thought herself to be ugly, plagued with acne, until her time away on a Greek island helping an elderly lady when she saw clearly that she, too, would be beautiful. Her only satisfaction – and she had to repress this – was her incredible joy about school. The teacher gave her extra lessons (and enjoyed praise from the parents), and watched her, paid attention to her. The teen years were wild, as in Asphalt Jungle, but the underlying fear was always there, occasionally ending in violence.
Ferrante is fiercely dedicated to telling the reader the truth about Italians. She apparently uses her own life experiences in her dark, authentic novel. Ironically, no one knows who she is. She has managed to keep her identity secret. Italy was devastated by the war, and some provinces had to be completely rebuilt. Times for this extended set of families were fraught with anxiety, worry, fear of another unknown disaster, ambivalence even about what they secretly bragged about.
The prose in My Brilliant Friend is deep and rich. Ferrante’s characters are gritty, real, lawed, and gifted. You linger in the background, trying to catch a whispered comment passed by a frustrated mother, or the emotionally stifled teen, or an old person who is absolutely convinced that tragedy will kill them all.
I am eager to read the other books in this series. Ferrante offers a melodrama set in post-WWII Italy. There was poverty in my family also, but we didn’t realize it, so we were pretty content. In the end, good and bad things happen to people, whether they are virtuous or not.