One of Italy's most acclaimed authors, Elena Ferrante is not well-known in the U.S. My Brilliant Friend, the first in a trilogy, may change that. The setting is the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, although the story begins in the present day, when 66-year-old Lenù receives a phone call from the son of her lifelong friend, Lila. Lenù casts her memory back half a century; their friendship begins when they confront Don Achille about stealing their dolls.
Their neighborhood, isolated from the rest of the world, has become ingrown, hostile, jealous and vengeful. Both girls are excellent students but Lila is prevented from attending school. Instead, she helps her father in his shoe shop and her mother at home. Lenù is fostered by one of her teachers and continues to attend school; she even travels to Ischia to visit the teacher's cousin, where she discovers a different world--one that provides her first sexual awakening.
Life for both girls does not go exactly as planned. Lenù, who has put all her eggs in the intellectual basket, discovers that no appropriate suitor wants her. Lila chooses a husband considered wealthy by neighborhood standards, thereby ensuring financial support for her father and brother's entrepreneurial desires. She preens and struts, now well-dressed and a homeowner--so why does she disappear?
Ferrante, a fierce writer and herself a Neapolitan, is well versed in region's class divides and unchecked passions. Even in Naples, however, things are changing, as the sequels to My Brilliant Friend are sure to reveal. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.