My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really struggled with this book, and couldn’t wait to be done with it. My two stars is not necessarily an indication of the book’s merit, but reflects that it is not for me. I listened to the audiobook, and while it would have been better to read it and be able to take notes so I could keep track of all the confusing characters, on the other hand I would have abandoned a print book. I finished this only because I’m a captive audience in the car, and it was for my book club, so I give those books extra effort. So the main characters are Lena and Lila, but that wasn’t confusing enough, so Lila is also called Lina. Then there is her brother Rino, and another boy Nino, and you get the idea. Lina, I mean Lila, is not very likeable – she’s rough, aggressive, unconventional – but unquestionably brilliant. Their friendship is very passive aggressive. Lena admires Lila, and is plagued by massive insecurity and believing anything she can do, Lila can do better. But Lila is doomed by her family’s poverty to cut short her education and work in the family shoe business. Nevertheless, she continues to push Lena in her studies, and confides toward the end of the book, that Lena is the brilliant one. But is it friendship or rivalry that drives this relationship? Together, the two girls navigate adolescence, male relationships, family rivalries that sometimes escalate into violence, and try and figure out how to make their dreams come true. Lena continues to pursue education as her path to becoming a successful writer, while Lila settles on marriage to a relatively well-off grocer to provide her the freedom to put her creative energies into the shoe business. There is no closure at the end of the book. The author considers the 4 volumes of this quartet to be one book, but I just don’t have the interest in pursuing 3 more installments.
[Translated from the Italian Ann Goldstein.]
[Audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber.]

Book description: A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila, who represent the story of a nation and the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

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Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An overly clever pastiche with an ensemble of mostly unlikeable characters. The main storyline involving the almost-romance between Pasquale and Dee is sweet. Most of the characters border on caricatures. Some of the writing is quite lovely, and it does have its humorous moments. We go back and forth between the 1960’s and the present day, following a variety of people. How they all relate to each other doesn’t come together until the end of the book. Then throw in some chapters like the first chapter of one character’s unfinished war novel, another character’s movie pitch about the Donner Party, or the first chapter of the movie producer’s autobiography. A little pretentious, but it sort of works. Woven throughout is the theme of looking for happiness by following your desires, no matter how ruinous or self-destructive those desires might be. Pasquale and Dee make a different choice – to do the right thing instead of what they think will bring them happiness. I think a second theme might be the hunger that we all have to create something that will outlive ourselves. Hence the Donner Party with its images of cannibalism, one character’s obsession with anorexia, various forms of artistic expression – wartime artwork in a cave, movies, plays and music – keeping dreams alive (extreme plastic surgery?), and sublimating the loss of those dreams through alcohol, drug abuse, and pornography. It’s a book that makes for interesting discussion. Of course, I enjoyed Richard Burton as a character and I now have to watch the movie Cleopatra.

Book Description: The story begins in 1962. On the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies a tall, thin woman approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, an American starlet, and she is dying. And the story begins again today when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot, searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

The Shoemaker’s Wife

The Shoemaker's WifeThe Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caution: May contain spoilers!

I really loved this story. The author spent 20 years on it, and the historical detail is fascinating. Lots of description of clothing, food, and daily life, whether on the Iron Range of Minnesota or behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Opera with Enrico Caruso. It brings to life the lives of immigrants at the turn of the century and up through the 1930s. I really didn’t want the story to end. I wish it had been made into a trilogy. The first half of the book was complete in itself – the story of Enza and Ciro growing up and ending with their at long last engagement. The second book could have covered their marriage, leaving NYC for Minnesota, establishing a business and ending with Ciro’s much too early death. Enza’s life as a widow could have been a third book, and this section was all too short in the book. It ended with her finally agreeing to return to visit Italy with her son and his bride, but I would love to have had the story continue with that trip, her family reunion, and the rest of her life as a grandmother perhaps….

My only quibble with the audiobook was the decision to have two narrators. Annabella Sciorra had an elegant voice, and a believable Italian accent. When Adriana Trigiana took over the narration I found it distracting. Her voice almost had a New Jersey accent, and the change in pronunciation of names was disconcerting. But I got used to it. It wasn’t bad – just different – and I suppose was a reflection of the big changes in their lives at that point, and that they were now Americans, not Italian immigrants.

Book Description: The majestic beauty of the Italian Alps at the turn of the twentieth century is the setting of the first meeting of Enza, a practical beauty, and Ciro, a strapping mountain boy. When Ciro catches the local priest in a scandal, he is banished and sent to hide in America. Soon Enza’s family faces disaster and she, too, is forced to go to America. Unbeknownst to one another, they both build fledgling lives in America. Ciro masters shoemaking and Enza takes a factory job until fate intervenes and reunites them. But it is too late: Ciro has volunteered to serve in World War I as Enza begins her impressive career as a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera House. Over time, these star-crossed lovers meet and separate, until the power of their love changes both of their lives forever.

Inspired by Adriana Trigiani’s own family history and the love of tradition, The Shoemaker’s Wife defines an era with operatic scope that will live on in the imaginations of readers for years to come.