Whitley Bay Book Group: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

After January’s atmospheric trip to the North West of England, this month we were off to sunnier climes – Naples – courtesy of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

It felt like we were coming to the party very late, after all the hype and excitement in the last few years about both the author’s identity and the Neapolitan Novels themselves. Some of the group did indeed love this tale of two friends growing up in poverty-stricken mid 20th Century Naples, but some very much did not love it. In fact it’s been a few years since a book so neatly and completely divided the group – when it came to our star ratings out of five, one of the 10 of us gave a 1*, four gave 2*s, four gave 4*s and one a 4.5*, giving, unsurprisingly, a score of 2.95.

Its fans liked the evocation of childhood, the smallness and the immediacy of it, the dilemmas it brought, and the power and intensity of adolescent friendships. Although it was clearly specific in its time and place, it also drew wider parallels on childhood in general. Fans also liked that many characters were not wholly good, or bad, and felt that it also described the boys’ feelings well too.

Those less enamoured with the book felt they didn’t engage with the story or the characters, and several disliked Elena and/or Lila. They thought there were too many characters, some of whom blended into each other too easily, or were too unrealistic. The writing was felt to be clunky and longwinded, and the language/translation irked some. Several members were also very uncomfortable with the many incidents of violence.

Whilst it was a story that focussed on people and relationships, we also noted the many effects and legacy of war, unspoken but very much present, and also wondered who actually was the ‘Brilliant Friend’ of the title – Elena or Lila?

Our book next month, Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, is a study of British intelligence agent Kim Philby, and is only our second ever foray into non-fiction. See you on 8 March!

The Whitley Bay Book Group meets on the second Wednesday of the month from 7.30pm-9pm at the Windsor Hotel, South Parade, Whitley Bay, led by facilitator Cathy McCracken.