This is the tale of the friendship of Elena & Lila, as they grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Italy, in the 1940s and 50s.
Elena is the narrator. She's an exceptionally bright child and a good student, but she realizes that Lila's native intelligence easily outshines her own, which causes her no end of torment. It's a rich, complex, and deeply felt portrait of a lifelong friendship, one characterized in equal parts by love and rivalry. I love that about it, the way it lays bare the ambivalence that can exist in deep friendship, especially in adolescence. It's heartbreaking, the things that Elena never tells Lila, the petty digs at her she sometimes takes, her secret & shameful glee when she feels she's bested her in some way. I flashed back on the horrible claustrophobic intensity of adolescence. God, I' m glad that's over.
Not only are the characters vivid and complex; the portrait of street life in post-war Italy is also endlessly fascinating. For the girls, their neighborhood is the entire world. They take it all as given: the beatings and screaming fights at home; the factions and rivalries; the dominance of the nasty Solara brothers, who have a sports car. Lila's father repairs shoes in a dusty little shop and a great deal happens because Lila designs some highly original shoes, which threatens the established order, in that he is only a cobbler and not some fancy shoe maker, and girls are not supposed to do things like that.
I stayed up until 4 a.m. night before last finishing this, and then all the next day at work I was thinking about it. Elena and Lila haunted my mind. Like Elena herself, I kept replaying certain scenes over and over, trying to figure out exactly what they meant. If that's not the mark of a great novel, I don't know what is.