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My Brilliant Friend: My take on the book by Elena Ferrante (now on HBO)

My Brilliant Friend. Elena Ferrante's brilliant novel of friendship.

Ferrante shares her deeply personal view of close friendship between females at that especially vulnerable period of time—as the girls approach puberty and reach the ripe old age of sixteen. So much happens during that tumultuous time, whether you live in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley or, as these girls do, the impoverished streets of Naples, 1958.

Told from Elena Grecco's viewpoint—Lenú (Elena's alter ego)— yearns to be Raffaella Cerullo—Lila—her seemingly always smarter, always braver, more adventurous friend who pushes Lenú to move beyond the bounds of her own limitations. Lila, the leader. Lila, the daughter of a shoemaker, the one who wins all the school competitions, Lila the one all the boys fall in love with. But Lila too, we see has her own measure of jealousy and while Lenú is like an open book, Lila is manipulative, a spy, digging around—as Lenú sees it—to see what's coming next, in order to best her friend at it. 

I decided I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away.

I suppose that was my way of reacting to envy, and hatred and of suffocating them. Or maybe I disguised in that manner the sense of subordination, the fascination I felt. Certainly I trained myself to accept Lila's superiority in everything, and even her oppression.

Set in Naples of the late 1950's, the first of four called The Neapolitan novels, the book is an extraordinarily honest look at the complex relationship we have with each other. We think of boys as being competitive, trying to top each other with their lists and their games and their horseplay. But it's girls, desperate to define ourselves, to determine where we stand, that are truly competitive. Are we the leader or the disciple? We fight with claws—sometimes in puberty, we descend into a real catfight, sometimes it's just catty behavior to each other. Sometimes it boils down to the world being a man's world with very little room for women. And only the 'best' women gain entry. We have to be best at classroom competitions or best at being beautiful. Later, we can win entry by being best at cooking, best at keeping house. Being best is difficult, being oneself, harder still. 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is that it takes us to another time and place, the impoverished neighborhoods of Naples, Italy in the late 1950's. While I've been to Italy twice, I've skirted Naples twice due to a perceived crime problem. I'm not sure if that is in reality the case—although a quick check on google talks about the city being run by the local Mafia called the Camorra and that there are a wealth of pickpockets with the Piazza del Gesu being very dangerous at night. 

So while I've visited Sorrento, Capri and Vesuvius, I may never visit Naples in real life, I can't wait to see Lenú and Lila's Naples on the upcoming HBO series. According to press reports, if this initial adaptation, presented in Italian with subtitles, does well, the remaining three adaptations are ready to air here in the US as well. 

I can't wait. Can you? My Brilliant Friend debuts the first of the eight-episode series on Sunday, November 18th. 
UPDATE: I've seen the first episode and while the acting is tremendous, I'm not sure what I think. In the novel, so much of what we think and feel about the girl's friendship comes filtered through Lenú's lens. The opener felt a little flat, a little lacking but I'm in for the long haul. Highly recommend you read the book first!