Competitive friendships.


My Brilliant Friend is a novel, the first in a not-yet-finished trilogy, by the elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante that details the earliest years of a friendship between the unafraid, fiery Lila and the clever, though uncertain Elena in a poor Naples neighborhood in the late 1950s.  It is a novel of the time and place, for sure–as the reader, we watch the violence and passion of the neighborhood erupt in the name of pride and longing: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad,” (37). We see children fighting to free themselves from their parents yet without the resources, or heart, to do it, and so they couple off and begin again in the town they rarely leave.   But for me as a reader, this was a novel about female friendship–and at first you might be tempted to think it sentimental and nostalgic, but really it’s nothing of the sort.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is brutal.  Elena’s standing in her school is usurped by Lila and the other kids can’t stand her, but Elena is drawn to her.  As children, Lila seems to test to see just how far Elena will follow and remain her friend, and I read in disbelief Elena continued to be mystified and devoted to Lila, no matter how cruel she could be. In their neighborhood “the women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other.  To cause pain was a disease,” (37).  Lila manifested this as a young girl and used it with Elena and Elena did not want to back down and appear weak, so their friendship went on, more a repetition of challenges than an actual friendship–throughout their entire friendship. 

Their friendship became even more complex when Elena’s family allowed her to continue her studies and Lila’s family did not.  Near the end of the book, their friendship diverges.  If not for the prologue which is written from Elena’s perspective in her sixties and conveys that they are still friends (and sets up the trilogy), I would think that the friendship would dissolve, as often they do.  The more I thought about it I began to see how Lila pushed Elena and could be credited to the drive that enraptured her, but I was simultaneously repulsed by her manipulative behavior.  There’s a moment near the end of the novel where Lila calls Elena “her brilliant friend,” which is the way Elena had always seen Lila.  I’m left wondering about the truth or the manipulation behind the proclamation, or perhaps both.

The most thought provoking reflection Elena has about their friendship is this: “The better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become.  It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the joy or sorrow of the other,” (257).

This kind of unspoken competition simultaneously makes me sick and yet feels very human and familiar if I am to look back on some of my own friendships.  There are a few that feel as though they had a similar competitive edge to them–which brought dissension and drama into the larger group.  It brought my thinking back to The Interestings and what envy can do to one’s insides and in turn relationships.  It makes me wonder about why people feel the need to compare and judge themselves against others–not to sound simplistic or preachy, but it seems healthier to share in one another’s joys and sorrows–to bear them together, knowing that no one has it easy or has it all.  Maybe it bothers me so much because I teach 13 year olds for a living and hate watching these power plays amongst them.  Perhaps this is just something we  learn–or, choose to learn–when we are older.  It is definitely easier to be bitter, but there is no emotional health in it.  And yet, the competition seemed to drive Elena to her highest achievements, and so I am left with unfinished thoughts wondering yet again about the complexity of the human condition.

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