What Happened In 'My Brilliant Friend' The Book? This Is A Riveting Story About Female Friendship
With HBO’s latest book-to-screen adaptation primed to premiere as an eight-episode miniseries on Sunday, November 18, readers and viewers alike are wondering: what happened in My Brilliant Friend, anyway? And, more importantly, what elements of the book will make their way to television this weekend? (If you’ve watched the totally captivating, just released official trailer, you might already have some idea.) Notably, this adaptation is also HBO's first foray into a foreign-language series — the script is Italian, with English subtitles.
My Brilliant Friend is the first title of the bestselling Neapolitan Novels, a four-book series written by pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante and translated by American editor Ann Goldstein. The novel takes readers into the post-World War II lives of two Italian girls: Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena (Lenú) Greco, as they navigate the loves, losses, politics, and poverty of their, at times, suffocatingly insular Naples neighborhood. Following Lila and Lenú from ages six to 16, My Brilliant Friend is both a universally relatable story of the myriad complexities of girlhood friendship as well as an investigation into how girls — especially girls born with two strikes against them already — grow into women. The novel also confronts the meaning of an education; formal schooling frequently collides with street smarts in ways that leave both girls grasping for more. Basically, I can’t wait to see what HBO has done with this one.
Here are 11 things that happened in My Brilliant Friend — almost sure to make their way into the television series. You're warned: there are major spoilers ahead.
Lila Cerullo disappears.
A story-within-a-story, My Brilliant Friend begins with the disappearance of Lila Cerullo, now in her 60s. In response to the complete and total vanishing of her friend (presumably, by Lila’s own design) Elena starts writing the story of their lives, beginning when the girls met at just six-years-old. It is in this way — by telling Lila’s story — that Elena tells her own story and the story of her neighborhood.
Lila and Elena lose their dolls.
In the first pivotal scene in the novel — one featured in the HBO trailer — Elena and Lila have traded dolls: Elena’s beloved Tina for Lila’s inferior Nu. Almost immediately, Lila throws Tina into a sewer grate in the street. Horrified, Elena throws Nu in after her, inspiring what is sure to be the central line of the entire series (and the girls’ friendship): “What you do, I do.”
The girls leave their neighborhood for the first time.
It’s hard to imagine one’s entire life being limited to a handful of streets that make up a single, particular neighborhood — but that’s exactly how Lila and Lenú grew up: knowing not even the whole of Naples, but only their small corner of it. At least, that is, until they take a rather underwhelming walk to the sea: cutting school and walking beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood, alone, until they’re caught in a downpour that ruins their plans.
Lila and Elena fight to stay in school.
After studying as rivals for the top of their classes throughout elementary school, Lila and Elena both have to fight their families in order to continue on in their formal educations. This results in the first instances of role reversals between the girls: the adventurous and daring Lila is forced to leave school, while typically-dutiful Elena’s family allows her to continue to middle school, and later high school.
Don Achilles is murdered.
Long-time neighborhood tyrant (and presumed gangster? Fascist-sympathizer? This, to an extent, is left up to readers) Don Achilles is murdered by the father of one of Lila and Lenú’s classmates. He’s described by Elena as “the ogre of fairy tales” and after the girls lose their dolls to the sewer grate, they accuse Don Achilles of stealing them in his notorious black bag.
Lila designs the ‘Cerullo shoes’.
As the daughter of the neighborhood shoemaker, Lila compensates for being forced to leave school by aspiring to become a shoe designer. She drafts sketches for the ‘Cerullo shoes’ (after her family’s surname), and she and her brother begin to hand sew their first pair in secret — afraid of angering their temperamental and violent father.
The warring families compete in a New Years Eve fireworks battle.
Neighborhood conflicts and politics reach a fever pitch on New Years Eve, when the boys of the neighborhood conspire to out-firework the prosperous (and, presumably, criminal) Solara family. The evening turns violent when the Solara boys run out of fireworks and begin firing bullets at the children on the opposing rooftop instead.
Elena goes to Ischia for the summer.
In her first real opportunity to escape the neighborhood, Lenú spends the summer with a friend of her schoolteacher, on Ischia. A coming-of-age summer, she begins to grow comfortable in her changing adolescent body and falls in love for the first time, with a neighborhood boy named Nino Sarratore. But she is also sexually assaulted by Donato, the womanizing father of Nino.
Lila receives two marriage proposals.
First courted by Marcello Solara, whom she despises, Lila — still in her early teens — then accepts the proposal of Stefano Carracci instead. While the youth seem to be fond of one another, Stefano’s motives aren’t entirely clear — he buys the first pair of Cerullo shoes and then endeavors to produce all of Lila’s designs.
The Cerullos begin producing Lila's shoe designs.
The production of the Cerullo shoes becomes a greater preoccupation to Stefano than his upcoming marriage to Lila. The teen hints to Lenú about her conflicting feelings about their relationship — seemingly worried that Stefano may be using her and her family for financial gain. The shoes become a great source of conflict between Stefano and Lila's father and brother.
Lila gets married.
In the concluding scene of My Brilliant Friend, Lila and Stefano are married, in a lengthy ceremony and celebration that highlights the social and political violence in the neighborhood. Lila also discovers that, somehow, Marcello has ended up with her first handmade pair of Cerullo shoes, and attends the wedding — against Lila’s explicit request — wearing them.