My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 331 pages, $17 (c2012)
by Stephanie Danler
Knopf, 368 pages, $25 (c2016)
“My Brilliant Friend” is fairly famous at this point for being the first book in the critically lauded “Neapolitan Novels” by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, a series which ended last year with the release in English of the concluding volume, “The Lost Child.”
“Sweetbitter” is the debut novel of Stephanie Danler. It’s a novel of evocative food descriptions and metaphors.
Both books are stories of girls/women growing into a realization of themselves and their potential. Both Ferrante’s Elena Greco and Danler’s mostly anonymous backwaiter (i.e., busboy/girl) are longing to escape the worlds into which they have been born. Elena does it by discovering and using her academic talents. At the same time, she longs to stay in her Neapolitan cocoon, for better or worse, because of her foundational relationship with classmate Lila Cerullo. Food awakens the senses for Danler’s progatonist, and it begins her journey toward destructive reconstruction.
Bittersweet is the happy tinged with sadness; “Sweetbitter” is the sad flavored with euphoria. Although Danler’s protagonist does turn out to have a regular name, she is unnamed for half the book. During the time she is anonymous, she is referred to by the nicknames her coworkers give her, “Skipper” and “Fluffer.” She is a backwaiter at a chi-chi restaurant in New York City, pondering whether she wants to crawl up the ladder to be a god-like server.
She is running from a mostly unspecified terrible life in the Midwest but is still full of childlike optimism at the start of the book. After her real name is revealed, the story takes a turn toward the personal, as she indulges in a teenage crush (although she is not a teenager) on the restaurant’s bartender, and tumbles into the after-service restaurant world of drugs and alcohol.
Danler’s sensual food descriptions are stunning. She begins her book this way:
A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.
Food changes the backwaiter’s life.
Elena Ferrante’s writing is also beautifully evocative. She writes of an insular community whose customs and relationships among the families were choreographed ages ago. Naples is not Italy in the sense that in the 1950s, when “My Brilliant Friend” is set, Neapolitans had their own dialect, manners, feuds, and politics. “Italian” must be learned in school, and not everyone thinks that that is necessary. People usually don’t move away but conjoin with other families from Naples in marriage and business. Ferrante’s strength is that she does not get lost in the crafting of her words; her storytelling is clear and tender and revelatory. This is near the beginning of “My Brilliant Friend,” describing Elena and Lila as very young children:
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.
I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.
Both books will drive you to other actions. “My Brilliant Friend” will make you seek out “The Story of a New Name,” the next in the series. “Sweetbitter” will drive you to taste something simple and exquisite.