I don’t feel 100% qualified to opine on this book, just because my experience was definitely affected by my choice to read it in the original language. This meant it took a lot longer to read and I have stopped and started a few times over the last few weeks. I also feel like I can’t talk much about Ferrante’s style per se.
However, I wanted to say that I REALLY LIKED this book. For me to persist in reading a book in Italian it has to be pretty engaging and also not too confusing – the first book I finished in Italian was Harry Potter e La Pietra Filosofale, so obviously I knew the plot inside out and the language wasn’t too tricky. Anyway, L’Amica Geniale tells the story of two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s and their friendship. It is the first in a four-book series, and follows Elena and Lila from when they first become friends, when they are just six years old, to their late adolescence.
One of the things I found really interesting about the book was how the social norms of the neighbourhood in which Elena and Lila grow up are so different from today. Things that really stood out were the casual violence in everyday life, how early in life children stopped attending school, and the narrowness of the characters’s geographical horizons – almost no one moves out of their neighbourhood, and it isn’t until her mid-teens that Elena gets the opportunity to go to the seaside.
Elena and Lila don’t have a straightforward friendship. The story is told from Elena’s perspective, and I grew increasingly curious as to what Lila’s side of the story would be. Elena openly admires Lila, but also envies her. She constantly compares their lives and personalities, and often her friendship with Lila seems to heighten her own insecurities. She seems to need Lila more than Lila needs her, to obsess about their friendship and about Lila’s life. However, thankfully every so often something will happen that reveals that Lila does, in fact, care deeply about Elena and admire her.
Ferrante is a keen observer of society and human nature. Elena is a complete, likeable, flawed character. She dates people she doesn’t really have feelings for, and often her approach to relationships in general seems calculated and immature. She is self-conscious about her looks and awkward around boys she does like. She gets jealous of Lila, and sometimes disapproves of her actions, but is her staunchest defender should anyone else criticise her. Other characters define Elena as sensible, good, and studious (often in opposition to her more strong willed friend Lila). Elena struggles with her education, as she stays at school longer than is usual in her neighbourhood due to her excellent grades. However, firstly, she always believes that Lila could surpass her academically if she wanted to. And secondly, at home, no one really understands her scholastic achievements, leaving her feeling an outsider in both worlds.
I think sometimes when you read books about teenagers behaving immaturely or stupidly, as several of the characters in this book do, you just want to shake them. But Ferrante builds the world of her characters skilfully, so that you become entwined in their thought processes – even when you don’t always agree that they are doing the right things, you understand how they reached their decisions. More broadly, the world Ferrante’s characters live in is hedged in by geography, by the cultural norms, economy and politics or their era, and she successfully communicates how trapped these people can feel.
In conclusion: go read this book!