The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for a tendency to point-score

Guard against this unattractive trait by reading Elena Ferrante's bestselling "Neapolitan" novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Tendency to point-score

Cure: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Some people seem born with a raging need to prove that they are better than the rest. And though this attitude may take them far, it won't make them happy. At the peak of their success, they'll be looking not at the prize in hand but down on everyone else – the friends, acquaintances and even lovers against whom they scored all those points. Guard against this unattractive trait by reading Elena Ferrante's bestselling "Neapolitan" novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend.

The story begins when childhood friends Elena and Lila are six years old and in possession of two much-loved china dolls. When Lila throws Elena's – and then her own – into the cellar of a terrifying local crook, Don Achille, they daringly knock on his door to ask for them back. But instead of returning the dolls, Achille gives them money and this, according to Lila years later, is where everything starts to go wrong. For with the money, their competitive spirit is born.

Soon their relationship is a jousting match. If one of them loves a man, the other tries to get him. If one reads Samuel Beckett, the other must, too. Forced to leave school early, Lila works in her father's shoe shop, where she teaches herself to make an unimaginably beautiful pair of shoes, simply to outshine her studious friend. Meanwhile, Elena excels at school as long as she can show off her achievements to Lila. But as soon as her friend loses interest, she falls behind.

Through careers, marriage and motherhood, it becomes clear that this powerful relationship, based on one-upmanship, influences every decision they make – even Lila's eventual disappearance. Be both fascinated and appalled by this minutely observed record of a complex friendship. By the end, any tendency you may have had to live life as a competition will be well and truly quelled.

'The Novel Cure' by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is published in paperback on 3 September by Canongate at £9.99

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