Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a very, very popular book. I don’t think I’ve been in a bookstore in the past five or so years without seeing this book. I hadn’t read this before because I was previously put off by the picture on the cover, it seemed a little old-fashioned and too “adult” for me. And it definitely was! I’m glad I waited until I was a young adult to crack this one open because it was truly a delight that was definitely not appropriate for my younger self to read. One aspect of any of Ferrante’s novels is the mystery and debate around the author herself, people trying to find out who are they really and are they really a woman?? I don’t really care about the ~mystery~ of the author, but I really appreciate a good story and this was one! It took me a while to get sucked into the novel but it eventually caught me like it has so many other readers. Also, quick shoutout to my lovely boyfriend who purchased this for me as a surprise for when I came back to school. I love receiving books from the ones that I love, so thank you very much! Shout-out to my parents for also feeding my lifelong book addiction, it was and is much appreciated.

Back to the book! Ferrante’s novel follows Elena Greco, a young woman from Naples through her childhood in “My Brilliant Friend”, the first in the Neapolitan Novels. Elena’s fate is intertwined with that of her best friend, Lina, a seemingly surly and unlikable girl. This novel follows the two girls from infancy into their mid-adolescensce and is told through the eyes of Elena. Ferrante’s novel examines the complicated nature of relationships of all sorts, our friendships, our romantic relationships, and even our familial relationships. Our protagonist Elena is extremely self-aware and this lends itself to her critical evaluation of every moment, for better or for worse. I liked this novel a lot more than I thought I would! It didn’t suck me in immediately and that was disappointing, but I now realize that Ferrante’s writings caught me in complex web that just took time to get stuck in! I would recommend this for 18+ both because of the complex themes and the tendency of Ferrante to include the occasional racy scene. Find it second-hand if you can, I’m sure there are many copies out there! Happy reading!

Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book about Paris/France in general on my list and I was excited to read something a little different after being spellbound to the Chaos Walking trilogy. Down and Out in Paris and London was George Orwell’s first published novel and it details, with some embellishment, his experiences being broke and trying to make it on the streets of Paris and then later in London. Orwell’s writing is both entertaining and enlightening, a perfect combination for the subject material. As the book opens, Orwell finds himself completely broke in Paris with no prospects for work anytime soon. During this period, the number of unemployed upon the urban streets was vast and it was incredibly difficult to find work that paid a livable income. After several weeks of scrimping, Orwell finds himself a dishwasher at the very prestigious Hotel X. Orwell is well fed and moderately well paid for a time but describes the appalling state of the kitchen hygiene in a very expensive establishment. Orwell then travels back to London on the prospect of a well-paying job but finds that he needs to make his way upon the streets for another month until the employer returns from vacation. Orwell proceeds to adopt a state of homelessness and wanders the streets with other tramps such as Paddy and Bozo.

While Orwell did have access to funding through various friends and family, for reasons unknown, he chose not to take it. While I don’t love the fact that he viewed his experience with those in abject poverty as entertaining “research”, he does provide a critique towards the way that society treats those on the lowest part of the social ladder. Orwell mostly critiques this in London as he finds the aid provided by secular and ecclesiastical authorities to be both inadequate and humiliating towards the impoverished. Orwell’s writing about poverty in Paris is more revealing of the daily struggles of the impoverished Parisian migrant and the horrific conditions in which he worked. I liked the tenor of the book but there are several obvious issues. While casual anti-semitism was a norm of Orwell’s time, it’s jarring to read. I found it a upsetting but didn’t find that it was so pervasive that I couldn’t finish the book. Orwell’s racial and ethnic attitudes are reflective of a time with very different social norms and should be read with such a perspective. Orwell’s book is a good read but perhaps for the more mature reader who can contextualize his narrative.