Monday, April 08, 2013

Book 42: My Brilliant Friend

The novel and prologue begin when Elena Grecco receives a phone call from Rino, her friend Lila's son, telling her that he can't find his mother.  This disappearance doesn't alarm Elena but it inspires her to look back at their lives, and capture their stories.  As the first novel of an intended trilogy (I believe the second part is available in Italy, and I hope it gets translated soon), this book covers Elena and Lila's childhood through adolescence in their neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s.
Though this novel takes place in a neighborhood in Naples, in many ways it felt like reading about life in a small village.  The majority of the characters are working class and struggle with money though even here there are a few families that stand out as successes, such as the Solaras who own the bar and the Caracci family, who own the local grocery store.  There are hints in the neighborhood that some of this wealth is from less than reputable sources, possibly related to the war.  There certainly is a dark and violent element in the Solara sons.  The novel actually has a list of characters and families in the front which I found very helpful - the Italian names were relatively familiar but still blended together enough in the beginning that I had to refer to it.  Elena's father is a porter, and Lila's father is the local shoemaker.  Neither of them are very well off, but I got the impression that Elena's family had slightly more money than Lila's.
While both girls are very smart, Lila goes beyond smart - she is almost a genius, and Elena spends a lot of time just attempting to keep up with her scholastically.  Additionally, Lila is the brave, bold and adventurous one.  At first, many think of Lila as a wicked child, but Elena falls under her spell, often feeling inferior to her best friend.  Still, while they stay in the neighborhood, their lives also go different directions since Elena's parents allow her to go on to the high school after she completes her school, while Lila stays in the neighborhood, and works in the family's store.
This isn't a novel where a lot necessarily happens, but I really enjoyed reading about the girls' relationship, the different personalities in the neighborhood and how things were changing for them at the time.  Lila is presented as a dreamer in some ways, coming up with plots and schemes to get rich which include writing a novel and designing shoes, and yet she is firmly grounded in reality and much more pragmatic than her friend Elena in many ways.  I'm also very curious to see what happens next given the point where this one ended, and the realization that Elena has made about her and Lila's futures.

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