My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Recently a dear friend told me some rather startling health news. Shocking in fact. So I reacted in the manner of a typically supportive, caring and compassionate friend: I burst into rivers-of-snot-running-breath-wheezing tears immediately compelling my illness-riddled mate into consoling me!!! I mean. WHO. AM. I.???

It got me thinking about the nuances of friendship. Unlike a family member where a contract is defined by blood, or a spouse where a union is bound by marriage, friendship is a tenuous and precarious attachment with little certainty but oh so much exquisite and inimitable joy. A friendship is free but it is not cheap. For all its peerless rewards (and they are countless), there is a fragility and uncertainty that shrouds it in a film of instability and flimsiness.

Since I was mired in my own selfish grief, I needed something to read that could traverse the grief/ friendship borderland. I needed a tale about imperfect friendship, longing, pain with a dash of hyperbolic tragedy. You know, something to accompany me in my self-invited pity party for one.

Given my home address does not include the suburb “Under Rock”, the Ferrante novels have been on my radar for some time now. To be honest, I was concerned they would suffer from the “Dan Brown” effect: everybody reading them but they are kinda just meh. I was happily surprised. My Brilliant Friend was EXACTLY what I wanted and needed.

Set against a backdrop of the mean streets of Naples two deliciously flawed and confused girls rely on each other as they negotiate the swings and arrows of growing up in 1950s Italy. Elena and Lila represent any of us as we navigate childhood to adulthood. While their circumstances may be unique, the growing pains they experience are universal and form the foundations of so many friendships, past and present. Sometimes we connect with people through circumstance and the relationship may last due to convenience. But always, friendships are looked upon in bewildered and stupendous awe for their capacity to transcend the unexpected.

So to MY brilliant friend, you know you can always rely on me for a shoulder to cry on. Hmm, actually, I’ll cry on yours. Call it even buddy?

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The Spare Room by Helen Garner

I think I developed a little intellectual crush on Helen Garner after reading this book. It’s fairly small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in impact (at 5 foot, I have found my literary equivalent). Simple prose and short elegant paragraphs mask the depth of poignancy and emotion in this slender and delicate tome.

The Spare Room is a novel, whose protagonist has the same name as its author, Helen. Helen invites her friend Nicola to stay with her while she seeks an alternate cure for the bowel cancer that is engulfing her frail body. Fiction and non-fiction drift through one another like osmosis as the tale is loosely based on a period in Helen Garner’s own life. Helen (author) had a friend who did indeed stay with her while undergoing cancer treatment. The alternative cancer treatment itself becomes a shadowing character that masks Nicola’s ability to accept her inevitable demise.

At the core of this novel, there is a wonderful celebration of female friendships – the enduring, the tender, and the ugly. Most women of any age can relate to the bond between Helen and Nicola and the mutual emotional dependence at various stages. To me, The Spare Room as a physical space seems to be a metaphor for the deep and affecting friendships held dear by all of us. We all have a spare room and indeed create spare room for those we love the most. It is in these domestic and private spaces in a person’s life that shape and define our humanity as a whole. I love that the Helen character was not afraid to express her frustration and sometimes anger at her dying friend. Her ability to remain authentic even in the face of an oncoming tsunami of grief is a testament to the love she had for Nicola.

When I read this book, I could not help repeating to myself ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. While Dylan Thomas’ poem may seem at odds when juxtaposed against an eccentric dying artist of her own world, the fighting (even ignorant) spirit of Nicola is hard not to embrace and support. Her belligerence against her illness is almost endearing and I while I appreciated Helen’s frustration at Nicola’s daft fantasies of recovery, her refusal to go down quietly was compelling and inspirational reading.

PS you may need a box of tissues