Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
My Brilliant Friend is a book by Elena Ferrante, published in 2012, and it is the first of a four-part series known as the Neopolitan Novels, or the Neopolitan Quartet. The novel focuses on two friends, Lila and Elena, and tells of their childhood growing up together in a rough part of Naples, Italy, during the 1950s. The story begins with Elena (both a main character and the narrator) beginning to write about the girls' childhood friendship, as she has recently learned that Lila has disappeared.
Throughout the story, the differences between Elena's and Lila's personalities are clear. Elena is portrayed as mild-mannered and calm, while Lila is bold and charismatic. Both girls are incredibly intelligent and enjoy school, seeing it as a sort of safe haven away from the chaos of their home lives and rough neighborhood. As the girls grow up, their friendship matures, too, though they do go through periods of difficulty typical of any adolescent relationship.
A key point of conflict in the story comes when Lila's parents force her to quit school to work and bring home money for the family. Elena's parents, on the other hand, encourage her to stay in school, sparking jealousy in Lila. Though this change clearly highlights a level of competition between the girls, the two remain close friends, with Elena even tutoring Lila in the subjects she's missing from school.
The novel draws to a close with Elena as one of two students from the girls' neighborhood still in school. Lila, meanwhile, has embraced working for her family's shoe repair company, with a dream to turn it into a shoe-design and production company instead. She is so committed to this dream that at the age of sixteen, she agrees to marry a somewhat wealthier man, even though he is the son of a gangster and not particularly nice. The novel ends here, at a point of tension, to be continued by the next book in the Neopolitan Quartet.
My Brilliant Friend gives the reader an in-depth look at post–World War II Italy: specifically, the working class. Various points of the two main characters' lives represent themes that were very much common during that period. For instance, the trend of placing higher emphasis on labor than on learning, demonstrated through Lila's having to leave school, would have been far from uncommon in 1950s Naples. Issues of socio-economic class and gender are also revealed here.
Further, the novel demonstrates the importance and impact of education. It is clear to the reader that by the end of the novel, Elena is better off than Lila, and this can mainly be attributed to the privilege of her education. This education affords Elena endless advantages and grants her the opportunity to break through socio-economic bounds typically held in place by social reproduction.
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