My Brilliant Friend is a mix of historical and literary fiction about two friends, Lila and Elena, growing up in the 1950s in a poor neighborhood of Naples, where everyone knows each other and everyday drama and occasional violence make life interesting. From early childhood, Elena is the smart, responsible one, often overshadowed by Lila's unpredictable, daring nature and hidden genius. Written from Elena's point of view, the book chronicles the two friends' journey into young adulthood, and how they grow closer and farther apart at times as rivals and confidantes, as each tries to find her calling.
The story is essentially a coming-of-age story, with the first book focusing on Elena and Lila's childhood and young adulthood. However, I went into it expecting a standard coming-of-age story, and I found that the book was not quite what I expected. One thing that was a surprise was how gritty and explicit the story was. Right from the beginning, Elena states that since childhood, they were not strangers to violence. She then proceeds to describe all the violence and and harsh realities of life that she and Lila witness as they are growing up, and in a way this makes up the bulk of the book.
Although I found the book well-written and worth reading, I did not have the same strong feelings for it as many other readers. I could not relate to Elena's detached, distant voice or Lila's unpredictable nature, and did not feel any attachment to the city they live in or its inhabitants, which is a big factor in whether or not one will enjoy the book in the absence of any major overarching themes. However, the book has been said to be also about Italy and its transformation post World War II, and while there was definitely a sense of that in the first book, I believe that this overarching theme will be more apparent as the series goes on.