Tag Archives: friendship

Elena Ferrante

After resisting Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books for so long, I finally read the first – My Brilliant Friend – for an upcoming book club discussion. As with the Hunger Games series, after reading the first book, I skipped to the last, interested more in how the characters lives were resolved than how they got there.

It’s no spoiler to state one of the two women who drives Ferrante’s first book disappears, nor to note the other is writing about their lives; this begins  My Brilliant Friend – before backtracking to their lives as young girls who become best friends in Naples. With a cast of characters who all live in the neighborhood, the first book curiously ends either as a cliffhanger for the next book or as a despondant resolution for women of that era – depending on whether you see the book as a soap opera tale or a feminist cautionary note.

The last book – The Story of the Lost Child – on the shortlist for the 2016 International Man Booker prize, offers more introspection and additional wry skepticism of how intelligent women fare in the world, but it’s ending and that of the series, reawakened my interest in the author’s identity. Not so much who she is but how she could manage to hide who she is so well.

I had agreed with her statement in an earlier interview about a book being received based on its own merit, regardless of the author’s background, training, or education – an anomoly in today’s literature where the author’s credentials often drive the interest in the book. But I was reminded of a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, who said people would come to see him because of his name but would leave after ten minutes if he did not deliver funny lines. Ferrante delivers with her story of a complicated friendship, with her commentary on the effects of politics, social norms, traditions and expectations, and with the flowing language evident despite the translation from Italian.

But why hide? Suddenly, I remembered the conceit in Stockett’s book “The Help.” An incident (contents of the pie) known to be true could never be acknowledged without revealing the embarrassment of the receiver. If fiction follows truth, would the real Lila who had threatened to erase her friend’s hard drive if she ever dared to reveal their lives, ever acknowledge knowing the author? If the author’s identity was revealed, an immediate pursuit of her background would follow, with speculation on others in the book. Authors often say their characters are fictional amalgams of many – but not always.

On the other hand, the solution could be simpler. The real friend is really dead and cannot speak out – or better yet, the story is entirely fiction – a clever vehicle for the author to make statements about the plight of women. I like the last conjecture the best.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…

A Little Life

9780804172707_p0_v1_s192x300   The subject matter kept me away from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – who wants to dwell on self-mutilation and  child molestation? I started reading it one night and had just started to enjoy the camaraderie of the four principal characters when the first incident occurred.  Thankfully, I had no nightmares but the next day I could not wait to start reading again and did not stop until I finished.

New Yorker reviewer John Michaud called it “an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.” You can read his review here for more details on the plot.

Curious about the author, I found several interviews and was surprised to learn Yanagihara has a day job as an editor for Condé Nast Traveler.  In an interview with Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek,Yanagihara reveals the philosophy driving her writing:  “All life is small…Life will end in death and unhappiness, but we do it anyway.”  In an interview with the National Book Award committee (the book was a 2015 finalist), Yanagihara describes her focus in writing the book:

“So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend…  the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing…

The book does focus on friendship but the graphic descriptions of sexual violence make it hard to read.  Added to the trauma is Yanagihara’s mental construct of life – no happy endings here.   In an online interview, she noted, ” I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed, and writing his sections were always the easiest…One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better… that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover.”

I’m hoping to forget most of the story, but a few redeeming phrases about friendship I will remember:

  • “And he understood that friendship was a series of exchange of affections of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”
  • “…the utter comfort…of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was…”

Read the book, if you dare.

 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

9780763681173_p0_v1_s192x300 Kate DiCamillo abandons her animal friends and creates an unlikely heroine in her newest book Raymie Nightingale.  At first I was disappointed in the trio of ordinary young girls who become friends one summer.  Where was the brave mouse of Desperaux, the china rabbit with a soul in Edward Tulane, the typing squirrel in Flora and Ulysses.

Raymie, Beverly, and Louisiana find each other at a baton-twirling class; all are planning to enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition and each has a reason for needing to win.  Unknowingly, the three have more in common than the contest; each is missing a parent or two and not only trying to cope with the loss, but also yearning to get back to what was before.

Although Raymie never does learn how to twirl the baton, she channels Florence Nightingale from the book her school librarian gave her for  the summer, and finds she can do the extraordinary – save a friend from drowning.  With the help of Beverly’s street smarts and Louisiana’s flighty sensitivity, Raymie gets back her soul.

Animals do appear in the story – a yellow bird set free from its cage, a howling rabbit eared dog rescued from a dismal fate at the animal shelter, and Archie, Louisiana’s back from the dead cat – the unsung hero of the book.  DiCamillo uses them to underline the theme of loss and renewal.

DiCamillo delivers a poignant tale of little girls who are brave and hopeful, but the story is really all about the power of connection and the support of friends from unlikely places and in unexpected ways.  We all need that now and then.

Reviews of Other Books by Kate DiCamillo:

Tapestry of Fortunes

After finishing Claire Messud’s stark story of loneliness and betrayal, I needed a 9780812993141_p0_v1_s260x420reaffirmation of the human spirit, and who better than Elizabeth Berg – one of my guilty pleasures – with her latest tale of friendship and happy endings in Tapestry of Fortunes.

The framework resembles Kris Radish’s Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral, but this time the road trip of four friends seeks to bury old lives rather than a body.  Cece Ross has come to a midlife crisis after her best friend Penny dies; unsatisfied with her life as a motivational speaker and writer of self-help books, Cece decides to sell her house, move in with three strangers, and rekindle the true love of her youth. As part of her renewal, she volunteers at a hospice and befriends a dying young man and his fiancee.

The road trip forces all the women (Cece’s new roommates) to face their fears, and make changes in their lives – with the help of fortune telling cards.  All ends well, of course, with Cece reunited with her love, and the others resolving their own issues.

If you are a fan of Berg, you will know the story before it begins, and connect with her thoughtful notes:

“…someone who drives past a house she used to live in and finds it changed feels it in the gut.”

“…I hate this yin-yang life that is always pulling the rug out from beneath your feet…{but} when you lose something…there is room for the next thing.”

” It only needs a small quantity of hope to beget love.” Stendhal

And her reminders of authors to reread:

More Elizabeth Berg books:

  1. Once Upon A Time There Was You
  2. The Last Time I Saw You