My Brilliant Friend Is the Ultimate Summer Beach Read
Welcome to Must Reads, where we review our favourite novels, memoirs, non-fiction books and more. For this instalment, we are reviewing Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which you can shop now in The Reads. Collection.
A rich blue sea with a wide stretch of ivory-coloured sand, umbrellas jutting up here and there, providing a little shade for the bronzed bodies stretched out beneath them. There’s nothing like Ischia, one of the islands off the coast of Naples, in the summer – as you’ll find out the second you read My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s sun-drenched, blistered, blissed out Neapolitan Quartet.
My Brilliant Friend is set in the 1950s in Naples, where we meet Lila and Elena, two best friends living in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. Life for this pair isn’t easy, but it’s full of adventures, as they navigate friendship, family, education and, eventually love. Both Lila and Elena are smart girls, quick readers, keenly observant and with big dreams, all things that set them apart in their working class neighbourhood. Both Lila and Elena want more for their lives. Lila, in particular, dreams of one day taking her father’s shoe store and transforming it into a design hub, a place where beautiful products can be celebrated and adored.
But, this being the 50s, Lila’s dreams don’t appear to be within her grasp. Over the course of the novel, setback after setback will be put in the way of both girls as the book charts their life from early childhood to adolescence. By the end of My Brilliant Friend, Lila’s life will have changed irrevocably and she will be set off on a course that holds her future in the balance. All Elena can do is stand by and watch.
First published in Italian in 2011, before being later translated into English, My Brilliant Friend kicks off the series of books known as the Neapolitan Quartet in style. There’s a reason why these books have been called modern classics and some of the best coming-of-age stories ever written. Ferrante takes all of her intimate knowledge of the streets of Naples and Ischia and spins it into the stuff of epic sagas, taking us by the hand as we follow Elena and Lila through their lives. Later in the series there’ll be huge heartbreaks and misery, massive love stories and triumphs, and My Brilliant Friend starts it all off in the most compelling way imaginable.
At the heart of the series is an exploration of female friendship and the ties that bind us together over decades and decades in a single relationship. Have you got that one friend that you met as a child that you feel bound to forever? Someone who has been with you through everything: school, childhood adventures, family breakdown, personal tragedy, first kiss, first boyfriend, first everything and beyond? Most of us have that one friend – how lucky are we? – and it’s this relationship that is explored in My Brilliant Friend. Neither Lila, headstrong and obstinate, nor the more reserved Elena, are perfect. Their friendship has its own ups and downs, with both girls pushing and pulling each other in their own ways. But their connection is genuine, and the love that they have for one another real. It’s a love that will keep them in each other’s lives for decades, as the rest of the quartet will explore.
What else is there to love in Ferrante’s novel? There’s the sparkling prose, full of drama and energy and romance. Ferrante is a lyrical writer often praised for the way she evokes a sense of time and place, and you’ll find yourself desperately dreaming of an Italian summer after just a few chapters: running down cobblestoned streets, spaghetti dinners under a balmy night’s sky, diving headfirst into the sapphire blue sea. It’s not all romance, though. Ferrante takes great care to educate the reader on what life was like in the poor communities of Naples in the 50s, and it wasn’t pretty. Lila and Elena learn early about the reality of being a young girl in their world, and Ferrante’s descriptions make painfully clear that the world wasn’t always a friendly one for them.
It’s because of these evocative descriptions that My Brilliant Friend makes for such an excellent beach companion. If you haven’t read it yet, this summer is your chance. Pick up a copy from the The Reads.Collection by Bed Threads, tuck it in your beach bag along with your towel, sunscreen and togs, and head out to find a stretch of sand to call your own. You’ll lose a whole morning in the pages of My Brilliant Friend, and then the afternoon to the rest of it. And after that? Get the rest of the quartet and call it a summer.
Shop My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante now in The Reads. Collection.
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