My Brilliant Friend

ferrante

There are many things in life to feel guilty about.  Food, for starters.  Too much of it, the wrong kind, at the wrong time… (in my case, all the time.) Then there’s the environment.  How little you recycle and how MUCH you throw away.  Use of car, use of central heating.  Anything. EVERYTHING! Even hobbies aren’t immune.  You should simply go, dig a hole in a bog and feel guilty about wearing artificial fibres.

Anyway, my reading guilt is not about the intermittent Jilly Cooper I read (she’s writing another, praise be! Although recent efforts have been somewhat creepy…) No, it’s Amazon-related guilt, which you’re probably familiar with as the media loves to bang on about how this tax-dodging leviathan is sucking up the jobs and shops of the country with great gulps.  The fact is, I have a kindle and often buy my books that way.  I may as well line up my favourite authors and shoot them in the face.

To make up for this moral vacuum, I periodically creep to my nearest independent book shop to breathe in the pages and buy books exclusively from their ‘staff recommends’ selection, to butter them up for undermining their industry and jobs the other 90% of the time.  My local is a charming place, with a beautiful selection of children’s books at the back which I am buying up with a speed suspicious for someone whose baby is still sucking her feet and whose sincere love of paper takes the form of crumpling and eating it.  But, to the matter in hand, last visit I obsequiously chose their number one recommendation: Elena Ferranti’s My Brilliant Friend. Translated from the Italian, it tells the apparently semi-autobiographical story of two girls brought up in poverty in Naples and is the first in a series of four, the last of which is published later this year.

So, the scene is set: lovely, independent bookstore, number one recommendation, translated from Italian (which I have a bit of a thing for since taking it for A-Level) and – I didn’t like it!  I wanted to, and there was loads of potential in the story: a mysterious beginning, a vivid picture of the world of poor 1950s Naples (not sure about the decade, don’t shoot me) through the eyes of children.  The writing is good, and the primary characters strong – but I found all of the secondary characters milling around in a much of Carmelas, Enzos, Rinos, Agostinos… I struggled to remember who was who.  And perhaps because it is the first of a series, I felt like most of the book was an extended beginning, failing to really get going.

The strengths are definitely there – the violence of the world is brilliantly summed up and the communication of how Linu’s world grows geographically and psychologically as she gets older is the best I’ve ever read of that aspect of growing up.  Ferranti plays very well with the notion of what success really means in this community – education or advantageous marriage, the book never quite decides.  The whole thing is essentially about the narrator’s adoration of Lila, the “brilliant friend” of the title (or so it seems) with a spark that set her aside from the whole neighbourhood. But this hero-worship is more than bit irritating. Lila is supposed to be not quite graspable, hence her fascination – but it makes her a slippery main character who flits and shimmers away at the art of the book to its detriment.

Ultimately she, and the novel, failed to snag on my mind. I read very quickly and even with not much time a day I can usually crack through but even my husband realised I’d been reading this for a while.  I’m all about an ending so it generally pains me not to read a whole series once I begin, but not this one.  To avoid further guilt I did read this volume to the end, but I’d say you can give it a miss.

But – BUT, readers! – the book I read after, am reading currently, is a STAR. A must buy for sure. Hold tight.

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