Our August Pick: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

For the month of August, our book club pick is My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, the anonymous author of the wonderful Neapolitan quartet: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and The Story of the Lost Child.

From Goodreads:

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else.

As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a trilogy, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.

On the book: “Relationships between women don’t have solid rules like those between men. I was interested in recounting how a long friendship between two women could endure and survive in spite of good and bad feelings, dependence and rebellion, mutual support and betrayal.”

On women: "Women, in all fields – whether mothers or not – still encounter an extraordinary number of obstacles. They have to hold too many things together and often sacrifice their aspirations in the name of affections. To give an outlet to their creativity is thus especially arduous. It requires a great deal of motivation, strict discipline and many compromises. Above all, it entails quite a few feelings of guilt. And in order not to cut out a large part of one’s private life, the creative work should not swallow up every other form of self-expression. But that is the most complicated thing.

We, all of us, need to build a genealogy of our own, one that will embolden us, define us, allow us to see ourselves outside the tradition through which men have viewed, represented, evaluated and catalogued us – for millennia. Theirs is a potent tradition, rich with splendid works, but one that has excluded much, too much, of what is ours. To narrate thoroughly, freely – even provocatively – our own “more than this” is important: it contributes to the drawing of a map of what we are or what we want to be.  

Although we are free and combative, we accept that our need for fulfilment in this or that field should be ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses. Instead, we must continue fighting to bring about profound change. This will be possible only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against. It’s going to be a long battle, centred on women’s industry in every field, on the excellence of female thought and action. Only when a man publicly recognises his debt to a woman’s work without the condescending kindliness typical of those who feel themselves superior will things really start to change."

On feminism: "I have loved and I love feminism because in America, in Italy, and in many other parts of the world, it managed to provoke complex thinking. I grew up with the idea that if I didn’t let myself be absorbed as much as possible into the world of eminently capable men, if I did not learn from their cultural excellence, if I did not pass brilliantly all the exams that world required of me, it would have been tantamount to not existing at all. Then I read books that exalted the female difference and my thinking was turned upside down. I realized that I had to do exactly the opposite: I had to start with myself and with my relationships with other women—this is another essential formula—if I really wanted to give myself a shape."

Discussion Questions

1. How did you feel about this book?

2. In an interview, Ferrante said, “Profound change will be possible only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against.” The New Yorker's Joan Acocella calls Ferrante's novels "the most thoroughgoing feminist novels I have ever read." Do you agree or disagree?

3. Throughout the novel, Lila earns her reputation as “the misfit,” while Elena comes to be known as “the good girl.” How do the two live vicariously through one another, and what is it about their differing personalities that makes their relationship credible? Which girl, if any, do you most easily identify with?

4. Could you personally relate to Elena and Lila's friendship? Did you have a similar friendship with another person when you were growing up?

In an interview in n+1, a book critic compares their friendship to a mother-daughter relationship: "Like real mothers and daughters, they police each other: each feels resentful, even paranoid, when the other steps outside her established identity. Like real mothers and daughters, Lenù and Lila need distance from each other to disentangle their identities." 

5. It can be assumed that Elena’s voice is behind the title of the novel, referring to Lila as “her brilliant friend.” However, toward the end of the girls’ story, it is Lila who praises Elena, and encourages her to be “the best of all, boys and girls” (pg. 312). Is this dialogue between the two girls symbolic of Lila’s surrender? Are you surprised by Lila’s words?

6. How does the setting (domestic outskirts of Naples, 1950s, lower class, conservative, violent and challenging community) determine Elena and Lila's lives? (Also note: The influence of the Camorra -- the mafia -- of Naples.)

7. Both girls are very intelligent. Is one more dominant or stronger than the other? Is the friendship beneficial to either of them? What does it say about Elena for pursuing education (people-pleasing? high achiever?) and Lila's almost fear of pursuing education (working at the shoe store and grocery?). How much power do they have in determining their own lives and fate? Why does Elena want to escape  and Lila feels chained? Did Lila wish to remain a "plebeian" as Maestra Oliviero said? Does the novel endorse higher education as an escape?

8. What are the main characters' relationships to the men in their lives, and how did you react to these relationships? E.g. Lila marrying abusive Stefano; Elena dating Antonio, crushing on Nino, being sexually assaulted by Nino's dad Donato Sarratore, etc...

9. Elena starts writing ‘all the details of our story’ as a way of making sure that Lila can’t eliminate all traces of herself, and in doing so, of ‘winning’. Why does Elena want to protect Lina so much? Does the narrator want us to dislike Lila? Or...?

10. Lila tells Elena she will not read Elena’s writing again because it hurts her. Does Lila regret the path she is on more than she publicly acknowledges?

11. Why has Ferrante divided the novel into ‘Childhood’ and ‘Adolescence’? Apart from the different times of life that they are describing, what are the defining differences between those chapters? Do they accurately mirror the life stages on which they are based?

12. Do you think the narrative subverts stereotypical notions of female friendship ("best friends forever!")? Does Ferrante accurately describe female friendship? How is it similar or different from male friendships?

From Vanity Fair, the writer who interviewed Ferrante states: "Unlike men, women tell each other everything. Intimacy is our currency, and as such, we are uniquely skilled in eviscerating each other."

Have you read the book? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

TOFemCo Book Club
TOFemCo Book Club 14 members
TOFemCo [tee-oh-fem-co], also known as Toronto Feminist Collective, is a group of women and non-binary identified people who are passionate about intersectional feminism. We are rooted in the heart of Toronto. TOFemCo first began in spring 2015 as a book club where feminists who like to read could discuss a variety of books using a feminist lens and a sense of humour. Since then, we have grown into a community that supports each other, shares communal meals at monthly potlucks, plans social gatherings for Toronto feminists, and attends community and activist events. Members of TOFemCo are the hosts of the podcast Underwire: Support for the Girls. In our book club, we read a variety of books by a diverse group of authors. We strive to be a trans-inclusive, queer-positive, anti-racist and anti-oppressive space for all feminists who are interested in good reads, good conversations and good laughs. We do not shy away from controversial issues or debates, as long as the conversation is respectful of others.

Books we've read

Milk and Honey
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
The Complete Persepolis
The House on Mango Street
The House of the Spirits
Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
My Brilliant Friend
The Round House

View this group on Goodreads »