My Brilliant Friend
Considering Elena is narrating this story herself, it’s always rather shocking to consider just how little of her own coming-of-age she finds worthy of sharing. Lila’s life — her familial battles, romantic entanglements, defiant nature, untapped intellect — is the centerpiece. Last week’s episode was an anomaly: Away from Lila for the first time in her young life, Elena had no choice but to focus on her own developing relationships. And of course, to impart to us the most traumatic of all her memories, that of Donato Sarratore wiggling his way into her bed.
But her return to the quartiere flips that focus back to Lila. Elena’s first moments at home (that is, after her mother accosts her at the door, screeching “What did you do? Did you misbehave? Did the teacher’s friend kick you out?” assuming she must have done something wrong if she’s home early) are unexpectedly reassuring. There’s a kind word from her father about how pretty she looks, and then a warm hug from Lila that’s reminiscent of the two girls embracing in the town piazza when they were younger, arms around each other as they read aloud from Little Women.
Yet Elena doesn’t have the chance to relate much to Lila — not the story of Nino’s kiss or Donato’s attack — before Lila is leading Elena back into her life, toward Stefano Carracci’s hot little red convertible (a Fiat, according to a friend who knows these things). Of course, while Elena has been off in Ischia, Lila’s life has gone on, too. But the moment is so uncomfortable. Elena clearly knows nothing about this alliance with Stefano Carracci, except for the fact that it spells trouble with the Solaras. She’s a pawn for Lila and Stefano — a chaperone, essentially, like a maiden aunt in Victorian London escorting her darling niece to overheated dances. For a girl of fifteen who’s just been off living her own (at times, albeit, very distressing) adventure, this is a hard shove back into reality. “The island faded,” she says, “to make way for what was happening to Lila.”
Lila and Stefano’s relationship is as unlikely as they come. You might have forgotten (although Lila hasn’t), but as a hulking adolescent, Stefano once smacked the hell out of Lila for daring to compete in the boys-versus-girls academic competition at school. He’s the son of Don Achille, a man who terrorized their neighborhood. What’s more, the Carraccis have made their money off the suffering of the neighborhood, as Pasquale impressed upon Lila on all those afternoons they met up and talked about Communism and the state of Italy.
Just like Marcello before him, Stefano sees Lila as a commodity to be bought from her father via his (unearned) largesse. Of course, he denies this. And in all fairness he hasn’t shown himself to be anything but honorable in his intentions toward the Cerullos and Lila. But you can’t deny that, as rivals, Stefano is doing everything in his power to outdo Marcello Solara. Marcello has a fancy little car, so Stefano buys a fancier one. Marcello considered the Cerullo’s shoes, so now Stefano has shown up to buy them. (Funnily enough, the size 43 was too tight for Marcello and now too loose for Stefano. Did the Cerullos stretch them too soon?) Marcello brought the Cerullos a TV, and now Stefano is bankrolling their shop’s transformation into a full-fledged manufacturing site where they can design, build, and sell their own shoes.
“Marcello’s already tried to buy me every way possible,” Lila says. “But nobody can buy me.” Yet Stefano does just that. So why does Lila fall for it, and for him? The answer, I fear, is a bit disheartening. First, she may think of Stefano as her only candidate who can overthrow Marcello, a man who, after his tantrums and abusive behavior, certainly deserves to go overboard. But the other answer that explains why she accepts him as her fiancé — and why Lila literally gets down on her knees to help Stefano get his shoes on, an indignity that she’s unlikely to suffer for many people — is that he is a ticket to the only kind of independence she can envision at this point. There’s a reason the marriage plot lasted so long as the primary narrative vehicle for women: for an orphan or a poor young woman, marriage might be the only guarantee of survival.
Plus Stefano’s been kind and doting, he’s willing to back her family and support them financially, and, frankly, he’ll make her rich — something Lila has wanted, with intensity, since early childhood. But first, she has to dispense with Marcello.
Everything in this scene flashed Danger! Danger!, from the way Lila lures him out for an unlikely gelato (“Before dinner?” ask about a half dozen bewildered neighbors) to her hissing fury, Elena is right in noting that “Lila had been brave, but not prudent.” For a man like Marcello, pride is everything. He will already look the fool for losing Lila to his rival, and so grinding salt into his wounds is certainly not the best way to part. But Lila’s fierce threat to Marcello, that she’ll kill him if he doesn’t kill her first, is exactly what we’ve come to expect from her.
When she sails back into town post-engagement, decked out with a lacquered updo like a cross between Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn, the stakes of her engagement grow bigger. It isn’t enough for Lila to have escaped Marcello, she needs to remind him (and the rest of the town) that she’s better off without him, that her previous life as the dirt-smeared daughter of a poor cobbler is in the past. The comments (from her own future mother-in-law, natch) that she thinks she’s too good to do hard work aren’t out of order. “After all, her behavior had been irritating when she was a skinny little child,” Elena narrates in the book, “imagine now that she was a very fortunate young girl.” Tension over the engagement crackles underneath the whole town — from Enzo and Pasquale’s bitter scuffle to the Solaras’ car up in flames at the hands of … Lila herself? Stefano? Enzo and his pals?
Against this backdrop of chaos, Elena is sorting out her own romantic confusion. First she has to contend with the addition of glasses to her now re-pimpled face — and this just at the moment her best friend is prancing through town with a pearl ring on her finger and sexy cat eye (sun)glasses of her own. If Lila is old enough to be engaged, it’s reasonable to expect that Elena must be, too, and yet, until Antonio unexpectedly surprised her at the beach, she’s had no prospects and lot of heavy emotional, sexual baggage.
The show’s director, Saverio Costanzo, was until now rather strictly abiding by every twist and conversation in Ferrante’s book. And yet here, while I don’t wish he’d gone in a different direction, I find myself just as disappointed with the saggy, empty Elena/Antonio romance as I did when I read it, only more aggrieved by the way he’s used as a mere tool to help Elena get rid of the slimeball Donato Sarratore.
I’m even more disappointed that so much nuance has been lost regarding Elena’s own relationships (for instance, the show skips over her entire relationship with Alfonso Sarratore) and longings (she first plots with Lila and Stefano to help them be together, and then, regretful of what she wrought, plans ways to separate them). It’s a disservice to a narrator who hides behind her dearest friend, in life and in narrative, but thoughtfully reveals meaningful little bits of who she is on the sly. Lila is, of course, the “brilliant friend,” but the novels are never truly about her — they’re a vehicle for Elena to tell us who she is in relation to Lila. The show would do well to stand by that premise.