The novel is set in Naples, Italy, primarily in a small, working-class neighborhood. The events span approximately 10 years, covering most of the 1950s.
Narrator and Point of View
The novel is narrated retrospectively in the first person by Elena Greco. Now an elderly woman, she looks back and recalls her memories of her childhood and adolescence.
Tone and Mood
The tone of the novel is sometimes slightly nostalgic, but often hints at the ways in which Elena's worldview and perspective have expanded since her childhood. There is sometimes a tone of bitterness or resentment in her discussion of Lila, but at other times she uses a tone of tenderness and pity to describe her friend.
Protagonist and Antagonist
Elena is the protagonist of the novel. There is no identifiable antagonist, although there are often occasions of conflict and rivalry between her and Lila.
The major conflict of the novel is the struggle faced by Elena and Lila to make better futures for themselves and not simply continue to lead typical lives within the tightly constricted world of the neighborhood. Both girls are intelligent and ambitious, and dream of having wider experiences and greater economic freedom. However, the expectation is that they will marry local boys at a young age and continue to live and work in the neighborhood as wives and mothers. As they grow older, their approach to this conflict diverges. Elena continues to gain formal education and distinguish herself intellectually, which seems to create possibilities that she may have opportunities as a result. Because Lila is not permitted to continue her education, her plans for herself rely on her obtaining wealth and stability through business ventures and an advantageous marriage.
The climax of the novel occurs only in its final sentence, when Lila realizes that Marcello Solara has come to her wedding reception wearing the shoes she believed Stefano was keeping as a treasured memento. This realization suggests that Lila, believing her marriage will grant her independence and control over her future, has been outwitted, and is now actually more vulnerable than ever. This surprising placement of the climax is made possible by the continuation of the story in subsequent novels, which will give readers the opportunity to learn more about what happened to Lila after her marriage.
Since Elena receives an education rooted in the classical tradition, there are allusions to some characters from classical literature, most notably Dido. Dido, the Queen of Carthage, is a character who appears in Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid. According to legend, Dido commits suicide after being abandoned by her lover. The interest both Elena and Lila take in this character reveals their interest in tragic love stories and melodrama. As Rachel Donadio points out, the name of Elena Greco is also the Italian form of Helen the Greek, possibly an allusion to Helen of Troy.
See section on imagery
Metonymy and Synecdoche
My Brilliant Friend Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for My Brilliant Friend is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.