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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ASU chapter.

Coming home is terribly lonely. I think of the pressure back where I came from with fondness because everything’s worse once you are home. The haunting is architectural. It’s not about me. It is about where I am. There are bones in the foundation. This house is a graveyard. This house is a corpse. I’m inside the corpse. That makes me the maggot.

I am outgrowing a village like an old winter coat worn too long and for too many winters, full of stray strings of thread and torn stitches, tight around the shoulders and itchy around the neck. I am a snake shedding its skin. 

(The bird leaves its nest to make itself a bigger one.)

Critically acclaimed, Elena Ferrante, is one of Italy’s best-known and least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of many remarkable and sincere works. It’s assumed that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is merely her pen name, although, in the past 20 years or so, she has provided written answers to journalists, and a dozen of her letters have been collected and published. Through them, we learned that she grew up in Naples and lived in places outside of Italy for long periods. She is also a mother and has a degree in Classics. 

Ferrante says, “I believe that books, once they’re written, have no need for their authors…besides, isn’t it true that the promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.” 

It’s hard to argue with this logic of withdrawal, especially with how violently personal all her novels seem. As soon as you read her fiction, Ferrante’s restraint seems very self-protected and because they’re so intense and personal– it’s almost like she is dangling bristling key chains of confessions right above your nose as the unsuspecting reader. You can’t help but want to believe these are her truths, yet you don’t know where they start and end. 

“My Brilliant Friend”, published in 2011, is the first book of the Napoleon Quartet which explores the complicated intensity of female friendship. Ironically enough, the main character Elena is fortunate enough to be able to pursue higher education and sees the opportunities it can give her outside of Naples. 

Elena meets her brilliant friend, Lila Cerullo, in first grade where both children are from relatively poor households. The city of Elena’s childhood is a poor, violent place but deprivation gives details a snatched richness. A trip to the sea, a new friend, a whole day spent with your father (“We spent the entire day together, the only one in our lives, I don’t remember any others,” Elena says at one point), a brief holiday, taking some books out of the library, a wedding, a conversation with a boy whos intellect is deeper and more liberal than your own, and more. These ordinarily seeming events create an unexpected luminosity against a background of poverty, ignorance, violence, and parental threat. 

The story begins with Elena describing her and her best friend Lila’s childhoods as marred by violence. In her life, it is normal for men to beat their wives, for parents to beat their children, and for children to fight viciously in the streets. Although Elena is writing her story as an adult several decades in the future, she describes events from the perspective that she had as a child growing into a young adult. As children, Lila and Elena have a limited understanding of their environment’s social and political background. They both seem to understand that there was a time “before” they were born that had influenced the dynamics of their neighborhood and shaped their home into the one they now live in.

Violence in many forms is almost inescapable in the book, and Elena begins telling her and Lila’s story acknowledging this violence from the outset. The way Elena describes it, violence doesn’t simply exist in the neighborhood, but rather the neighborhood lives and breathes violence. The violence here is generational, passed down from fathers to sons, and disseminated to men in the neighborhood who then pass it on to their wives and children. The violence Elena and Lila experience comes mainly from two historical elements: the destruction of World War II and the political instability of the time. 

Because of this, it’s very obvious that the world around them is bleak, and ultimately you have to do whatever to survive and carve a path for yourself. All this destruction left an already poor city to fend for itself and you would be lucky to find yourself in Elena’s position, being able to continue your education. 

In Lila’s case, she knows that her parents dont see an opportunity with education like Elena’s parents, which is why Lila doesn’t continue middle school and instead works for her family’s business making shoes. At 15, Lila goes on to marry Stefano Carracci. She bathes in the luxuries and the lavish new apartment Stefano gets her, believing that her marriage will grant her control over her future and independence. However, the intimacy between Elena and Lila is threatened due to the impending wedding. Not only will she be preoccupied with her new role as a wife, but someone will now have more intimate access to her than Elena ever has. Elena experiences almost sexual jealousy as she thinks about the privileged access Stefano will enjoy, but her concern is less with the ownership of Lila’s body than the closeness she has always craved and never felt certain she was achieving. 

Throughout this book, we experience the ups and downs of the very complicated relationship between Elena and Lila. Both girls are seemingly jealous of each other in different forms and times throughout their childhood to adolescence. They face major struggles to not lead typical lives within the tightly constricted world of their neighborhood. Both girls are intelligent and ambitious, and they dream of having wider experiences and greater economic freedom. However, the expectation is that they will marry local boys at a young age and continue to live and work in the neighborhood as wives and mothers. 

As they grow older, their approach to this conflict diverges. Elena continues to gain formal education and distinguish herself intellectually, which seems to create opportunities for her. 

Because Lila is not permitted to continue her education, her plans for herself rely on her obtaining wealth and stability through business ventures and an advantageous marriage. Towards the end of the novel, however, both girls are confronted with painful realizations that their aspirations have largely been illusions and that their opportunities are as limited as ever. 

“My Brilliant Friend” has always been about the intersection of the personal and the political. The politics of who gets access to education and who doesn’t. The politics of wanting a better life than the one you had and how you achieve it. The politics of who becomes a figure of authority and who doesn’t. But the main message of the novel is something many can relate to, the expectations of what your family wants you to be and the dreams you have for yourself, in order to escape the village to which you have grown accustomed, to be able to spread your wings and achieve something that nobody else has even attempted to. 

This novel displays the true intensity and power of female friendship, and Ferrante does not shy away from showing our main character’s faults and hypocrisies, the good, the bad and ugly. This novel is a classic of the modern 21st century and the words of Ferrante are something to always carry with you.

Isys Morrow is a Junior studying English and is a writer at the Her Campus at ASU chapter. In their free time, they enjoys reading, writing, rating movies on Letterboxd, and trying new coffee shops. She especially enjoys walking her dog Ace in the summertime.