Eight Sunday nights in a row late this fall, I became obsessed with the HBO series, “My Brilliant Friend.”
Based on a quartet of connected novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante. The television series is a co-production between HBO and the Italian network RAI. “My Brilliant Friend” is shot in Italy in native Neapolitan dialect and stars Italian actors; there are English subtitles. The series is a faithful rendering of Ferrante’s four novels originally published in Italian in 2012 and 2015.
The story begins in the 1950s in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Two very bright elementary aged schoolgirls, Raffaela (called Lila) and Elena (called Lenu) rely on each other above of anyone or anything else. As they enter puberty and become women, their paths — Lila marrying at 16; Elena continuing her education — diverge and converge.
Naples, Italy, is rather warm; even in December, during the day, it rarely falls below 60 degrees. Summers are hot and humid. There’s a lot of time spent on various Italian beaches. Here on the north Oregon coast, winter is full on, which means it’s raining, if not raining sideways. Not ideal beach weather, at least not in my opinion. One of my book group friends looking for me over the holidays said she expected me to be home, reading our next assigned book, “Wuthering Heights.” I said I’m skipping the book. I watched the movie. With apologies to Bronte, the next few weeks, my reading time is devoted to Ferrante.
Imagine my pleasure browsing the rows of books in the Seaside Public Library and finding not one but all four of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I am reading them out of order. I read “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” which is Volume 3, first. As I write this, I’m working my way through “The Story of a New Name” Volume 2; hopefully by the time I return it to the library somebody will have returned Volume 1, “My Brilliant Friend.” The last book of the series is called “The Story of the Lost Child.”
Ferrante is an exquisite literary voice. Her themes of women’s friendships and how women’s lives are shaped by their social milieu as well the themes of sexual and intellectual jealousy and competition are timely; she also addresses social and domestic violence and class conflict as well as the role of literature and the social responsibility of journalism during times of social upheaval and political protest.
By the time the characters are true adults in the third and final novels, it’s the 1970s. Lila and Lenu confront changing conditions of women in the workplace, student protests, and Italy’s famous factory strikes, and the start of a period known as “The Years of Lead” marked by left wing and right wing incidents of political terrorism.
There’s a lot to discuss about these novels. I think I should recommend them to my book group.
“My Brilliant Friend” returns for Season 2 on HBO, but no release date has been set. HBO is tentatively saying fall 2019. Meanwhile, as the rain lashes down, when dinner is over and the dishes have been washed, I’m diving into bed to read for a couple of hours without interruption.
Catch Season 1 of “My Brilliant Friend” on HBO On Demand; or check the books out at the Seaside Public Library.