On a quiet street in postwar Naples, two young girls embark on a complex friendship that will encompass decades of strife, jealousy, bitterness and fierce devotion. Since early childhood, Lenu and Lila have been each other’s protectors and confidantes. Lenu lives in fear of her domineering mother, while Lila is expected to put work and family first, with her education being a low priority.
Lenu worships the enigmatic Lila, believing her to be smarter, more beautiful and more interesting than herself. But Lila’s shifting moods are inscrutable, giving way to unpredictable bouts of anger, irritability and depression. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lenu sticks by Lila’s side. As Lenu and Lila age, they are pulled in opposite directions—but they remain fixed points in each other’s orbits, for better or for worse.
Chiara Lagani and Mara Cerri’s adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel, is a brief and impressionistic rendition of the original. Lagani’s spare text (through Ann Goldstein’s translation) provides broad vignettes of the novel’s pivotal moments while Cerri’s artwork brings to life the often grim setting of Lila and Lenu’s neighborhood.
Ferrante’s original is a dense book, spanning years of childhood and adolescence over more than 300 pages. Rather than cover each event in detail, the graphic novel pinpoints the most life altering events for Lenu and Lila. The artwork is the true star of this adaptation. Using pencil, charcoal and pastels on coarse, off-white paper, Cerri reflects the harsh reality of postwar Italy—its grit, its violence and its fear. The panels are large and without straight lines as Cerri alternates between aerial views and intimate, uncomfortable moments. Similarly, the color palettes range from hyper-pigmented to washed out. The materials used imbue the book with an aged appearance, as though Lenu herself had crafted it as a diary—Cerri often leaves original pencil sketches in place, and the reader can see exactly where the drawing was altered.
It’s difficult to say if My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel can stand on its own; most of its readers will likely be those who have read the original, and it’s unclear whether there are plans to adapt the rest of Ferrante’s quartet. That said, it is a unique and evocative tribute to a modern classic.