The first book in the incredibly popular tetralogy about two Italian women and their decades of friendship? That’s probably correct. I’ve avoided reading much about this book beyond the fervor with which the book has been received, because I’m one of those guys who most enjoys the drama of these kinds of narratives knowing as little as possible. That being said, it’s only said fervor that will keep me moving past this one, which read like a mix of the marriage scene in Deer Hunter and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. It’s no surprise that a book about women has to start by being a book about young girls, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it had to stick so incredibly close to all the adolescence cliches. Struggling for a teacher’s attention, figuring out which boy is most likable, the vagaries with which periods and puberty come on—even when these things are handled well (and Ferrante handles them with a lot of style), they’re still boxes to be ticked. There’s not a lot of beats here that haven’t been hit before, and while I’m certain that the remainder of the series has its charm—too many people who know what they’re talking about have said as much—the main reaction I had coming out of My Brilliant Friend is that, like Mr. Robot, Game of Thrones and Halt and Catch Fire before , this is gonna be another one of those critically acclaimed things that just isn’t worth the time.
An extremely well told and extremely painful book deeply indebted to that Southern Gothic tradition that seems nowadays to be little more than window dressing and costuming for generic narratives, this book was written when its author was only 23 years old—and if after reading it, that doesn’t hit you right between the eyes, then you’re too stupid to breathe—and I’d put it up there, and against, just about every single one of the American classics that are required reading. This should be a Gatsby, a Knowles.
It’s torturous at times, mysterious in a way that feels cruel, a book that steadfastly focuses on five characters and their perspectives, forcing you to learn about their families, friends and foes by studying the shadows and the spaces between. A young girl on the verge of being a young woman, mired in poverty. A tortured, barely sane drunk packed into the body of a young radical on the run. An aging black physician racked with tuberculosis whose obsession with equality has decimated his own family. A hard luck fat boy, stapled to his youthful choices, incapable of winning over the love of others. At all their social center: an aging deaf-mute, either a repressed homosexual or a homosexual McCullers didn’t feel comfortable getting specific about due to the time period, whom all four of the others have independently placed as the living embodiment of morality and hope, none of them realizing that the man’s only real motivation is for the desperate, unrequited (and hopeless, and pathetic) love he has for a mentally handicapped deaf-mute locked up in a hospital on the other side of the state. It’s a book about these people and how they’re doomed for collapse, but are able to buy some time when they discover someone who can’t help but listen. If Being There is the funnier version of how we impugn our highest morals on those who can’t argue back, this is the more brutalist version: that we may do this, but it will not help.
-Tucker Stone, 2017