cover image My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante, trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, $17 trade pape

The world of Elena and Lila, Neapolitan girls growing up after the Second World War, is small, casually violent, and confined to their poor neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and the few prosperous families dominate. There are rules and expectations, and everyone knows and lives by them. Except Lila: smarter and bolder than the others, she does what she wants, drawing Elena, who narrates the story, in her wake. But this is more than a conventional up-from-poverty tale. Elena completes her schooling; Lila does not. Elena leaves the neighborhood and eventually Naples and Southern Italy; Lila does not. Yet it is Lila and her dreams and caprices that drive everything. In fact, the narrative exists because the adult Elena, hearing that Lila has disappeared, decides to write Lila%E2%80%99s story. And she does, in dense, almost sociological detail (the list of the members of the key families is actually necessary). This is both fascinating%E2%80%94two girls, their families, a neighborhood, and a nation emerging from war and into an economic boom%E2%80%94and occasionally tedious, as day-to-day life can be. But Lila, mercurial, unsparing, and, at the end of this first episode in a planned trilogy from Ferrante (The Lost Daughter), seemingly capable of starting a full-scale neighborhood war, is a memorable character. (Oct.)