Have you caught Ferrante fever yet? No, me neither. Until last week that is when I was wandering around Waterstones on my everlasting search for well-written contemporary fiction with my birthday book tokens burning a hole in my pocket. I picked up Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend initially attracted by the cover and one of the ladies working in the store highly recommended it and told me a little about #ferrantefever. Elena Ferrante’s three novels, known as the Neapolitan trilogy are becoming something of a literary sensation, partly because they are so readable and partly because the identity of the author is a mystery. I started reading My Brilliant Friend last Friday night and then couldn’t put it down all week.
It’s a coming of age story about the friendship between Lila and Elena which begins when they are eight or nine growing up in a small village in Naples during the 1950's. Their friendship is intense and competitive and life among the poor working classes in their village is pretty brutal. There is a lovely account of the day they decide to skip school and leave their village for the first time to walk to the Napoli coast near Vesuvius. They confidently set out with no concept of time or distance and soon are hungry, tired and wary of a violet light in the sky indicating an impending thunderstorm. When they turn back Elena’s mother has gone to the school to meet her holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain. When she discovers Elena has lied her mother whacks her with the umbrella while Lila’s parents don’t even notice she has gone! Some readers have found the harsh realism in this novel a little excessive but I prefer to read about life as it is rather than ‘cosy' fiction.
My Brilliant Friend reminded me a little of Lorrie Moore’s Who will Run the Frog Hospital? a highly readable novel which leaves you wondering how much is fiction and how much is memoir. I’ve already started the second volume The Story of a New Name and I'm going to save the third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay for my Christmas read. There is more about Elena Ferrante here and here, but I warn you #ferrantefever is infectious!