“Life was like that…we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, November 18 to discuss My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which has now been adapted into a drama series on HBO. This is a book poised to surprise its readers. The cover depicts an idyllic wedding day scene, the coastline, two little girls, and a bride and groom, all perfect, bright, and scrubbed. Goodreads calls the book a “touching meditation on the nature of friendship.” Yet the nature of our discussion was quite different. Instead of bright blue skies and sweet scenes of lifelong friendship, we were drawn to discussing the mean, unforgiving, and score-keeping community, which was so insular, provincial, and entrenched in various backwards traditions. We also discussed the unlikable self-esteem issues Elena harbored, and gender roles and culture wars. About half our group enjoyed the book, and the other half did not. 

For those who enjoyed the book, it was not necessarily love at first sight. If you’ve ever read a book but did not realize that you enjoyed it until after it was finished and you’d had time to think about it, you may feel that way about My Brilliant Friend. Readers enjoyed the precarious, very unsettled setting: Italy emerging from the second world war. And while not pleasant, our group was drawn to Elena’s relationship with her friend Lila. It was intriguing, and to some, sickening, due to its all-consuming nature. Some readers described Elena as obsessed, and some wondered if there wasn’t something deeper than friendship lurking beneath the surface: infatuation, maybe attraction, or romantic love? 

We talked about escape. Elena and Lila live in a working-class, rough and tumble neighborhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. It’s a place where little girls grow up too soon, so having a way “out” was a priority for Lila even from a young age. While I won’t reveal Lila’s ultimate trajectory, it can be said that she never left Naples in the course of the book — but she still found a way out. “Out” in a nontraditional sense. Out of one life and into another. It’s interesting to consider what Lila ultimately valued and how those values shaped the way she constructed her day-to-day lived experience. 

Even those who did not like the book felt that the ending was an excellent cliffhanger. Check out the next book in the series, The Story of a New Name. It’s also very mysterious to not know who Elena Ferrante really is; the name is a pen name, and the author’s true identity is unknown. 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, December 16 at noon to suggest more titles for consideration. Our next book discussion will take place Thursday, January 20, when we will discuss The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. If the full-length book is too long, try the summary! Feel free to email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org with any comments or questions, or for more information about Brown Baggers. 

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