I once picked up the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s bestselling series, after the very impressive Argentine mother of a dear friend described the books as erotic masterpieces that can never be appreciated in America so long as they have such hideously Victorian book covers. When I abandoned this first attempt to scale the Neopolitan novels, I had more than a thousand pages to go. Thanks to the prologue to My Brilliant Friend, I knew the story ended with two women who have observed each other’s lives with enough attention to recount their own experiences through the story of the other. The rest of what I suspected was confirmed by my many friends who loved the series: despite this mutual, all-consuming obsession, these two ladies never fuck. Reader, I am not proud, but the facts are the facts. I bailed.
I was both relieved and wary when HBO announced the miniseries adaptation of Ferrante’s series. Could my humble, homosexual spirit spelunk safely into the Dantean depths of what has been described as one of the all time best depictions of female friendship? Would I unwillingly emerge from this series converted and cured of homosexuality, spiritually transformed by the platonic power of Elena and Lila’s bond?
As a queer woman, there are choices you have to make to maintain a healthy sense of self-preservation. Sometimes that means your body away from bed on a Wednesday night because that’s the only time the local gay bar has ladies night. And sometimes that means avoiding internationally bestselling series because it’s too unfathomable to imagine 50 years of mutual infatuation where neither party ever even considers the possibility that they might just fuck it out and move on with the damn thing.
Just in case there’s a single person who opens this article who hasn’t read, seen, or browsed the Wikipedia page for My Brilliant Friend, it is the first novel documenting the decades-long friendship of Elena and Lila, two girls from a small town outside of Naples. The story begins in the 1950s when both girls are in grammar school, and the miniseries follows them through adolescence to early adulthood.
Though they are recognized as the two most promising girls in town, Elena is reserved where Lila is bold. She resents her friend’s intuitive brilliance, and she is propelled by her own sense of inferiority to excel through academics. Elena and Lila trade beaus, each more troublesome than the last, and they encourage and challenge each other to write. With the ferocity of animals trapped in cages, they plot their escape from their oppressively provincial village, always with one eye on the other, using men as pawns in their battle to achieve freedom.
Watching this series, I felt a mixture of bewilderment and exhaustion. If true friendships consume this much energy, then I have spent my entire life friendless. I’ve always assumed being gay required a fleeter foot along a trickier path than the one the heterosexuals walk, but how do the straights summon the energy to have so many relationships that are so fundamentally unsatisfying? Every turn of the narrative seemed to reflect upon the story’s unspoken gay tragedy. Elena’s inability to manifest an original thought hampers her studies, and it is also what prevents her from making out with her hot friend. Lila’s mind is more acute to unforeseen possibilities, but the village communist is only able to teach her about the mafia and the black markets, and unfortunately there’s no one in town who can do the same with lesbianism.
These characters spin around each other, allegedly smart, yet also so dumb. Without a helpful homosexual guide like Audre Lorde around to inform these two schemers that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, their plans to escape the patriarchal hold of their hometown are as elaborate as they are futile. Elena toils through years of schooling, Lila plots an elaborate shoe empire, and no one tells them that the fastest way to get permanently exiled from a backwards village is to just go ahead and do something gay. You’ll be in the big city in no time.
In the book, I found that Ferrante’s controlled narration prevented the reader from wandering too far off from Elena’s perspective, which is maybe why I never finished. Spending so much time inside the head of a woman so resolutely heterosexual when it is against her own best interests is against my religion.
But the result of making all of Elena and Lila’s sexual scheming and emotional manipulation visual is that the story’s erotic confusion is endearingly unavoidable. The series is awkward where Ferrante’s writing was sure, the camera pausing sometimes over the character’s lingering gazes as if to say, yeah my dude, I don’t get it either. I wandered inside these character’s heads like an alien discovering a strange planet. What queers these heteros be! But the extent to which I truly could not relate to Elena and Lila’s relationship prompted some soul searching. The series is such a massive phenomenon, resounding so powerfully with so many women I deeply love and respect that it feels incorrect somehow to simply not get it.
Maybe being a lesbian is just having a lower bar for what constitutes women’s interest. If you’re a woman who teaches me how to dance and read Latin, I’m going to wonder if you want to make out. But maybe that’s just what all female friendship is like—maybe all women speak Latin, and I just never noticed. In moments of the inevitable boredom that comes with binge watching, I started to wonder if I placed a magnifying glass over my friendships with the women I love but do not fuck, would I find myself staring at my own actions with the same befuddlement that I felt while watching this TV series?
There are women in my life who I intend to keep in my life until the day we die, preferably together, preferably while vaping. There are friends who I love with enough passion to promise that in the decades to come, we will one day feud just to keep things exciting. There are women who when their names are mentioned, even by a stranger, I can’t stop myself from announcing for the approximately fifteen-thousandth time that I just adore them—that the essence of their being, their simple existence in the world, makes me happy.
If I were to take a step back to watch myself with my own beautiful, brilliant, funny, special, magnificent friends, would I too wonder in amazement at the chastity of said friendships? Have I held Elena and Lila to an erotic standard that I myself do not keep? I thought a lot about this question while watching My Brilliant Friend, and the answer is simply, nope. My friendships are appropriate, thank you very much. My adorable friends and I walk through life on parallel tracks, waving fondly from our separate paths, offering a hand when we hit hurdles.
What I don’t do is start relationships because my most captivating, most beloved, most confusing friend got asked out first. When I’m at the beach, I enjoy the beach. I do not write letters every dang day from my beautiful seaside vacation to impress my hot friend at home. I’m not carrying the memory of said friend’s impromptu book reviews so that one day I might parrot her thoughts in an essay and feel as though I were channeling her soul through my words. That’s plagiarism, Elena, and it’s also too much.
In general, my reaction to My Brilliant Friend from beginning to end, was damn, these gals have really let this thing get out of hand. Edging is a reliable way to intensify an orgasm, but 50 years without even making out with the person who haunts all your waking thoughts is taking the game too far. There’s something perverse about this whole brilliant friendship that I find disquieting. Elena and Lila shape each other like marble, cutting and chipping away at the parts of their personalities that are unformed and imperfect. They seek out each other’s meanness more often than they seek each other’s comfort.
Call me old-fashioned, but if we’re never going to fuck, my threshold for the amount of pain I can endure on behalf of companionship is relatively low. In a prospective partner, I welcome all attempts to disturb my sense of well-being. In a friend, I’m a bit ashamed to say, it’s a dealbreaker.
I’m not opposed to masochism, but who are these heathens who believe masochism belongs outside the bedroom? I thought Elena and Lila were Italian—is painful passion not the one great tradition of Catholicism? Or have they reached the god-tier of Catholicism where body and blood are offset into lifeless objects—embodied in this case by the many slobbering men who slouch in and out of Elena and Lila’s lives?
The whole spectacle did succeed in giving me a newfound appreciation for straight women. If Ferrante is to be believed—and why shouldn’t she be, given the massive worldwide success of the Neopolitan series?—countless women spend their whole lives enduring the relentless violence of invariably awful men, all the while nurturing dizzying erotic obsessions for other women that will never be fulfilled. It’s the worst of both worlds, and straight women everywhere should be commended for their fortitude.
Every time Elena and Lila meaningfully locked eyes amid the brouhaha kicked up by the Solarases, the Carraccis, the Sarratores, or any of the other hit dogs that hollered throughout the eight episodes of My Brilliant Friend, I thought to myself—in a phrase that, like the inferior Elena Greco, I must admit I’m borrowing from one of my own brilliant friends—lmao my good bitches, your lives are going to be a constant struggle.
The eight episodes of My Brilliant Friend are currently streaming on HBO.
Teo Bugbee is a freelance culture writer and full time union organizer.