LAST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2016
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Ms Ferrante has caused a furore in the literary world: apart from the superb quality of her writing, she is also very strict about anonymity, Elena Ferrante being a pseudonym. She believes that novels should be born, then stand alone without the weight of an author’s name behind them propping them up. Fair enough, but it is obvious that the search for Ms Ferrante’s true identity is ongoing, if only for the fact that someone so much the master of her craft should never remain secret, for Ms Ferrante has produced a remarkable feat, a quartet of novels that are unforgettable.
The first, ‘My Brilliant Friend’, opens in 1950’s Naples, that teeming, corrupt city overshadowed by Vesuvius and plagued by crime and poverty, particularly in the area that eight-year-old Elena Greco lives. A porter’s daughter, she longs to be friends with the local shoemaker’s daughter, Rafaella, called Lila, for Lila is wild, different, a disturbance in the classroom, but of superior intelligence: if only there were some way to impress Lila, to make her see that she, Elena, is smart too, worthy of her friendship though more of a follower than the instigator of mischief that Lila unleashes so effortlessly: Elena feels that if she can persist in her attempts at friendship, it will be a win-win situation for them both. For Lila has a natural brilliance, a propensity to soak up knowledge (and languages) like a sponge, that Elena must benefit from just by association. She wants to be a scholar too, but doesn’t learn as easily as Lila, who is generous with advice on how to retain knowledge that eludes so many of their classmates.
Their friendship grows over the years, overshadowed by the stark poverty and casual, everyday violence that is a feature in the lives of their families and neighbours. Money and the lack of it colours all decisions, and it is considered a triumph for Lila and Elena to go from elementary to middle school, much against parental objections, especially from Elena’s mother who says she should be earning a wage somewhere (at barely thirteen) to help the family. Lila’s family is no different and at the same age she is seconded to her father’s shoe repair shop to ‘learn proper work’ with her brother Rino, who is already seething with discontent, for he has been ‘learning proper work’ for years and has not been paid a penny for his efforts because it is ‘for the good of the family’.
The only families doing well in the neighbourhood are those whom everyone is afraid of: the family of Don Achille Carracci, grocer and black marketeer, eventually murdered by a carpenter he ruined, and the Solara family, local gangsters and loan sharks operating within a pastry shop. The sons of these two families are the local lords of all they survey, and as Elena and Lila develop it becomes plain that Lila, the free spirit who laughs in their faces, is the prize. The one who must be brought to heel, to show respect.
Ms Ferrante ends Book One with the explosive finale of Lila’s wedding at the age of sixteen to the grocer Stefano Carracci; he has set up her father and brother in the business of crafting shoes designed by her; he has showered clothes, furniture and a brand-new apartment on her, and Lila feels she has made a fine marriage, saving her family from continued penury – until the wedding reception, when it becomes abundantly clear that Stefano has made a deal with the Devil. Book Two is ‘The Story of a New Name.’ Can’t wait! FIVE STARS.
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
Who could possibly top that? Well, no-one really, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler has elected to tackle ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, the Bard’s paean to misogyny, and the bane of feminists – and ordinary women – since it was first written. She does a sublime job.
Italy becomes the American state of Maryland, specifically Ms Tyler’s beloved Baltimore, the setting for most of her lovely stories. Kate Batista is twenty-nine, a college dropout and reduced to keeping house for her largely absent father, a revered scientist researching autoimmune diseases, and her vacuous, empty-headed (but pretty and popular!) younger sister Bunny. She knows that life is passing her by but she feels powerless to change her circumstances, until her father, desperate to keep his brilliant Russian research assistant whose visa is expiring, presents her with a request which she finds utterly outrageous: marry Pyotr Cherbakov so that he can stay in the country and get a Green Card! Her reward? The knowledge that she has contributed to the unimpeded advance of vital scientific research!
Needless to say, Kate is furious – she is a shrew, after all, something that Pyotr in his clumsy attempts to court her recognises early. Not that it deters him: ‘You are crazy about me, I think’, he states when Kate’s body language (not to mention her mouth) informs him of just the opposite. He does not care; he needs his Green Card, and the thought of having to return to Russia without finishing the exciting work he is doing with the world’s foremost researcher on autoimmune diseases fills him with dismay. Besides, there is nothing for him to go back to: he was a foundling, left on the steps of an orphanage in a box that held cans of peaches (brand name Cherbakov). No: his life must continue here in the U.S.A, where he has a chance to permanently belong to a community – and a family.
Ms Tyler was a finalist in last year’s Man Booker Prize (the first year it was opened to American writers) for her lovely novel ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’, see review below); once again she beguiles the reader with prose as simple and natural as breathing, and she leaves no-one in doubt as to her mastery of Shakespeare’s comedic style, striking a blow (subtle though it has to be) for women everywhere with Kate’s wedding speech, in which she rationalises in the most charming, authoritative way Pyotr’s caveman tactics leading up to their hugely unceremonious marriage.
This is a little gem, and does the Hogarth Shakespeare Project proud. SIX STARS!
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Family dynamics: that weary, well-worn euphemism for the myriad ways that people hurt those whom they should love most.
The clarion cry of ‘It’s not FAIR!’ engendered by sibling rivalry which, as siblings reach adulthood becomes ‘Why did they love you more than me?’ has never been portrayed with more skill, perception and humour than in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s peerless chronicle of a family’s life through three generations – not very long as a family ancestral record, but of sufficient length to draw the reader into this graceful story, because we recognise so much of it as our own.
In 1994 Red and Abby Whitshank have four grown children. They live in Baltimore, Maryland in a house that Red’s father built, and Red has taken over his father’s construction company after both his parents were killed in an accident. Abby is a social worker, a woman who welcomes the waifs and strays, especially at Thanksgiving, a holiday her family secretly dreads for they never know which awful waifs will be present at the carving of the turkey – but Abby doesn’t care: her heart is big and There But For the Grace of God etc etc. More turkey, anyone?
In the main, Red and Abby are content with their life and their family, whom they love dearly. Amanda, the oldest girl is a lawyer; Jeannie followed her father into the construction business, a bold step; Douglas (called Stem for a very poignant reason) has also gone into the family company; but Denny, the third child – well, Denny appears to have taken on the role of family failure; family flitter-away-from-responsibility candidate; family jack-of-all-trades – and master of none, despite much encouragement and many new starts, assisted emotionally and financially each time by his parents.
Time passes inexorably; Red and Abby age; their family start families of their own – all except Denny. His life is a mystery to them: they have no idea where he lives, or what he does for a living – does he even work? Then they receive an invitation to his wedding. He is marrying the bride because she’s pregnant. Oh. Okay then. They’ll have a grandchild to love and spoil! Sadly, no. Denny disappears for years, until family concern about Red and Abby’s vulnerability as they age brings him home, and what has been simmering beneath the family surface since childhood erupts in an ugly geyser of hatred and resentment: Denny’s anger is never directed at himself; he could never hold a mirror up to reveal his many faults: instead, he lashes out at those who are the last to deserve his ire, causing ructions that are shocking but come as no surprise to anyone.
I can’t remember reading at any time a more perfect evocation of family life; the petty jealousies, the perceptions real or imagined, of who loves who best, and the immense loyalty and unity only a family can draw on when tragedies occur. And the great, beating heart of this family is contained in the house, built by their grandfather for someone else, but eventually becoming his, as told in beautiful flashbacks.
Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby, both writers who ‘know their onions’ (my old gran used to say that often!) maintain that Anne Tyler is ‘the greatest novelist writing in English’ and it is easy to see why. SIX STARS!!!