In keeping with my desire to read more authors from other countries (than the USA or Britain), when I came across this author, I thought it was just the thing. It is written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein, and since I don’t speak Italian, I don’t have the slightest clue as to whether it is a good translation or not, but it read beautifully and smoothly, so for me, it was a good translation.
This is the story of two girls who become friends, of sorts, and of a neighborhood, and of a way of life. Set in postwar (that would be postwar WWII) Naples, Italy, it tells of how the two girls met in first grade. Elena is the narrator, and although not nearly as innately brilliant as Lila, the two compete in school for the top awards and the teacher’s approval. Lila is careless and grubby, only slightly more grubby than anyone else in the poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Elena is a drudge of sorts — always studying, ambitious, wanting more.
When I say a friendship of sorts, it is because Elena is thoroughly enamored of the rough and tumble Lila, who disdains her from the start, but gradually allows a grudging friendship to be formed. While the more intelligent Lila does not go on to high school, Elena studies especially hard to pass the exams for the classical high school where she will learn Latin and Greek.
Lila in turn, has a brother who works in the shoe repair shop with his father, and secretly attempts the making of beautiful shoes of Lila’s design. In order to finance this endeavor, Lila accepts the advances of the lovelorn grocer’s son, a prosperous family, by the standards of the neighborhood. His father was some kind of bad guy, and was killed by the father of one of Elena’s friends.
Not only is it about a brilliant friend (of sorts), it is a brilliant book, neither maudlin nor saccharine. It is a recounting of life as it is.
The book starts off with an frantic phone call from Lila’s brother to Elena, telling her the Lila has completely disappeared. They are in their sixties now, or so, and from here, Elena says she will tell the whole story. Frankly, I never did figure out why or where Lila disappeared to. The story then proceeds in detail through their adolescence, with only a couple of very minor references to their later lives, and ends with Lila’s marriage at 16. Seems like a lot missing, or that whatever came after was of so little importance that it wasn’t worth telling.
But nevertheless, I found it to be a wonderful read.
The author, although quite celebrated, is really an enigma. No one is sure if that is her real name, if she actually lives in Italy, is a woman or a man, or anything else. She, and I am using that pronoun advisedly, has a number of other well-received books in English translation, so you may hear more about her as I get around to reading some of her other work.