Elena and Lila have been friends since they were children together in the slums of Naples. The novel opens with a framing prologue with the two women in their sixties, but the focus here is on their lives from the ages of six to seventeen. They are bound to each other, at times inseparable, at times at the furthest remove. Each takes the other as a kind of superego, a spur to acts and endeavours that will take them out of their families, their claustrophobic neighbourhood, their lives, in fact, and onward to something they know not what. Their horizons are stultifyingly limited initially, but together, at least, they are able to lift themselves up in order to see beyond. However, this is post-war Italy, and what is beyond the horizon is not always so attractive.
The relationship between Elena and Lila is the brilliant centre of this story, but swirling around that intimate friendship—one in which both girls at different points refer to the other pointedly and justifiably as “my brilliant friend”—are a huge cast of characters, economic and political tensions, passion and consequence. Initially that host is limited to immediate family or the families of others who live in the same building. Only gradually does that circle expand. Elena is a diligent student, but Lila is, without seeming to even try, utterly brilliant. Unlike her friend, Lila can already read and write before she gets to school. She taught herself. Lila’s autodidacticism becomes a recurring motif. We see Lila read through the circulating library, and teach herself Latin and Greek. There seems no limit to what Lila might be capable of. No limit other than the imaginative capacity to think herself outside of her own situation. Perhaps. Fortunately Lila’s development spurs Elena on to renewed efforts of her own, though within the school environment. And so each enables the other to flourish.
Elena’s development, thanks to the encouragement of teachers, takes her, in school, beyond anything her parents might have hoped for her. Her friend, however, needs to be more inventive. And she is. Lila is an alchemist of old, transmuting base metals into gold. Or in this case, working within the elements and forces of her local environment to create dramatic new possibilities. Seeing her way through. By the end, however, it is unclear which girl has succeeded.
You will find yourself rooting for both Lila and Elena even as you fear for them. And the dramatic conclusion to My Brilliant Friend will have you waiting impatiently, as I now am, to get your hands on the second volume of this trilogy. Highly recommended.