The reader will either become addicted to or lack the commitment needed for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels starting with My Brilliant Friend (331 pages), followed by The Story of a New Name (471 pages) and this latest third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The final fourth volume will come out September 2015. The length of the novels and the character-driven, rather than plot-driven, story might discourage some readers. The reader will either become addicted to or lack the commitment needed for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels starting with My Brilliant Friend (331 pages), followed by The Story of a New Name (471 pages) and this latest third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The final fourth volume will come out September 2015. The length of the novels and the character-driven, rather than plot-driven, story might discourage some readers. But the detailed world of a working class Naples neighborhood beginning in the 50s, its families competing for survival, with the ferocious lifelong friendship of two girls Elena and Lila at its center are unique and brutally honest. Length is necessary, as it was in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for characters to evolve as they do in real life.
Because of the full portrait of the neighborhood dominated by males and because of the eventual outside violent forces challenging conventions, these are not chick lit books. Male violence dominates—men beating wives, the camorra’s influence in mob businesses and a shadowy loan shark’s unsolved murder, and even Lila’s father throwing her out the window. That is, until Lila rises as the star, the one who will upend the old ways with her relentless and fierce determination, reshaping businesses according to her many skills. Scrappy, mercurial, and feral Lila, is not above violence herself as she presses a cobbler’s knife to the throat of one of the dominant Solara family’s older boys, and no one doubts she would kill him.
Not only are women under constant threat but the friendship parallels the surrounding violence: the anger of betrayal and competition as well as the dependence on each other to define their identities. In the real ups and downs of friendship, one succeeds and then the other one does. Elena, our narrator, is the supposed good girl using her studies to leave the neighborhood. Lila’s family won’t let her go on with her education, so she makes sure she is the queen of the area, marrying the wealthiest (a grocer) and taking over businesses. But before that, she proves to Elena she’s better than her, taking over her studies to supersede her. With unpredictable, seemingly selfish Lila, it is a wonder the friendship survives. Elena is ever insecure, struggling to learn proper Italian and consume as much education as she can, even in her own writing considering Lila her muse. At times she fears Lila will die; at other times she wishes her dead.
Ferrante is particularly skilled at cliffhanger endings. The first book ends with Lila’s marriage at the age of sixteen, the supposed climax of her success, but at the same time reveals Lila’s fury in anticipation of what damage she might do. The second book is a book of betrayals, Elena’s included, as she struggles to succeed as a writer, though it ends with the tantalizing possibility of a romance she had given up on.
This review of the third book is for those who have read the other two. They must be read before this one, not only for the chronology of the two main characters’ lives but because of all the characters’ backgrounds. In this book, we are not sure of them, as we wouldn’t be with real people—have they changed for the better or not? In the last book we have seen Lila going further than ever to betray her friend and even using her. But now it is Elena who is being challenged in terms of the conventional values she has maintained all along. At the end she disappoints us. In fact, the novel’s anger may extend to us readers. We are reminded that the characters we have known in Ferrante’s world, just like in the real world, are too complex to be either all good or all bad.
This book’s opening discovery of the body of a childhood friend is prescient of other such friends who will be killed in this book, as well as a distant echo of the loan shark’s murder of the first book. The neighborhood, which inevitably draws even Elena back, is a definite character in this book:
During that period I was convinced that there was no great difference between the neighborhood and Naples, the malaise slid from one to the other without interruption. Whenever I returned I found a city that was spineless, that couldn’t stand up to changes of seasons, heat, cold, and especially storms.
The storms are more than weather, as fascists fight idealistic communist revolutionaries.
Lila noticed yet again the anxious pleasure of violence. Yes, she thought, you have to strike fear into those who wish to strike fear into you, there is no other way, blow for blow, what you take from me I take back, what you do to me I do to you.
And even at thirty, there is no knowing Lila. First she would betray Elena in front of her beloved teacher, and then she says “I expect great things about you, I love you”:
With her, there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be provisional; something shifted in her head that unbalanced her and unbalanced me.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is full of instability, especially as feminism has started to redefine sexual relationships and offers another freedom from that of escaping one’s past. Can a woman in love separate from a man any better than Eve from Adam’s hip? These are the kind of questions that will enthrall the reader of this series.