The first and second Neapolitan novels inspired me to write fiction of my own. The third had the opposite effect: If Elena Ferrante can write that well, why bother?
It’s hard for me to say whether Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is better than the previous two installments, or whether the issue was that reading the first two, I’d imagined I was reading semi-autobiographical fiction. This time around, however, I was reading after the revelations about the real person behind the pseudonym. Knowing that this was all invention is awe-inspiring. When I imagined the author was a real-life mix of close friends Elena and Lila, I was impressed but not, evidently, to the why-bother level.
But maybe the book really just is that good. It contains the best description of terrible sex in probably all of literature, followed by… I will just direct you to the last sentence of Chapter 62.
Now, the spoiler-filled bit:
After a brief interlude in more recent times, Those Who Leave picks up where the previous book left off: with Elena’s sudden ascent from impoverished Neapolitan child for whom attending middle school borderline miraculous, to celebrated novelist. The reader may anticipate an upward trajectory. In a very literal, physical sense there is one – the book ends with Elena on her first-ever airplane trip. But otherwise, not so much: She goes from celebrated young author of a risqué first novel to frustrated housewife in the Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary mold. Not all at once – there’s her stint as a politically engaged labor reporter – but she has one child, then another (earlier than she would like; her her supposedly secular husband opposes contraception), and home responsibilities pile up as professional successes wane. She’s got more material comforts than she did as a child, but is – after all that education, after a successful novel – occupied with household chores.
Meanwhile, Lila – of course Lila! – is at first doing terribly, struggling to support her (possibly) out-of-wedlock son while working at a sausage factory. Elena swoops in and rescues her from a job that’s made her ill and subjected her to intense sexual harassment… but by the end of the novel, Lila’s the great success, with a high paid computer job, while Elena’s all outtakes from The Feminine Mystique.
What’s most interesting about all the novels is (again, of course) the Lila-Elena relationship. But a close second is all that Nino business. Nino is that rare thing: a childhood crush who remains alluring into adulthood. But more than that, he’s deeply entangled with Elena’s other loves: Lila (who was his lover, and who may have born his child), and professional ambition as a writer. The Lila aspect isn’t all that explored, at least in Book 3 – early on in the book, Nino tells Elena that Lila had been bad in bed, but that’s almost it.
By the time he reappears in the novel, Nino could pretty much come into Elena and her dull husband Pietro’s living room, fart loudly, and she’d run off with him. He’s Nino, the hot intellectual ladies’ man. (Everything’s exciting when he’s around and empty when he’s not and Nino Nino Nino, sigh.) But that’s not what he does! No, Nino seduces Elena (if one can call it that, given her preexisting decades-long infatuation, this despite his liaison with her best friend) by appealing to her professional ambition. He does some swooping in of his own and declares – and he’s not wrong – that Pietro has asked to much of Elena in the domestic sphere, putting his own work first and leaving her to squander her (superior, Nino notes, again accurately) intellect.
So on the one hand, Nino sees Elena’s marriage for what it is, and appeals to her resentment at years of being treated like an intellectual inferior. On the other – as the somewhat hindsight-possessing older-Elena narrator is aware – Nino’s an expert at grand passion. He knows just what to say to women to inspire them to drop everything and run off with them, and has unclaimed children all across Italy to show for it. There’s this moment when it looks as if Elena will leave Pietro in favor of independence and being single for a while and that seems like an excellent idea, but when did great fiction ever limit itself to good decision-making?
Leaving Pietro for Nino isn’t really about creative self-realization… except it kind of is, because Nino inspires her to write. But does she care what Nino thinks about her work because she’s admired his brains since they were kids and respects his opinion, or because Nino Is Sex?
But turning back a bit, wasn’t Elena’s marriage to Pietro also a savvy career move? In exchange for tolerating an unexciting husband, Elena gained access to a volunteer literary PR person in his well-connected mother Adele. It’s not just that the marriage gives Elena a path out of her class, city, and neighborhood of origin. It’s also, more specifically, that Adele builds the path for Elena to have a writing career, first as a novelist, then as a reporter.
And maybe that’s what makes the Neapolitan novels so wonderful, apart from the obvious (that is, the combination of a sweeping portrait of society and intricate portrayals of the moment-by-moment emotional lives of the characters). Desires – for artistic achievement, material comfort, sex – exist in unpredictable, intertwined ways.
Yes, one can do the political discussion and talk about how the book is – among so many other things – a powerful refutation of the idea that it’s possible to for class struggle not to take gender into account. But it would be a mistake to reduce the book to a political manifesto, or, conversely, to believe that the strongest political points come from works with obvious political intent.
My own selection for this trip looks a bit like this:
‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante £11.99 (Europa Editions) – This is the third in the Neapolitan Series and if you haven’t yet started them get to a bookshop pronto! I could easily have read all 4 books in this series back to back, but working in the bookshop, blogging and the like means that I like to get some variety in there for chatting to people about the goings on in the literary world. This enforced break between each book may have actually done me good as it has ensured I have taken my time and really savoured the stories. I have just over half way through the third and as with the previous I am finding myself proclaiming to those around me that the story has developed to become even richer, the characters more complex and the relationships so wholly absorbing I feel myself having physical reactions to the sufferings of those I have come to care for within the pages. This book really moves the plot along from the second, you can feel that the times they really are a changin’ for those living in Naples, both politically and personally (although in this novel for me the ‘personal is political’ could never be more true). Ferrante is an author with fire flowing through her pen and I feel its full force now, with less than a third to go I really should be getting on …!
The Neapolitan Novels’: “My Brilliant Friend,’’ “The Story of a New Name,’’ “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,’’ “The Story of the Lost Child,” Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa)
You’ve heard everyone talk about them, this addictive epic about two girls in Naples and the pathways they take into life. The size has put you off, maybe the hype. Just start with volume 1, and say good-bye to the world around you.
I consider David Copperfield to be a great book, one of many masterpieces by Charles Dickens. It’s a long book, a very long book, telling nearly the entire life story of its narrator and title character.
People may prefer different sections of David Copperfield over other parts of the book, the bits with Francis Micawber are the best parts by the way, but you can’t really judge the book as anything other than one work. You don’t have four opinions, one per quarter; you have one opinion.
I think that’s the best way to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. They have been broken down into four separate books but they are really one novel. The cast of characters introduced in the first book has not grown much by the end of book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The issues the main characters face are still basically the same, the conflicts introduced in childhood continue to haunt the narrator’s life in book three. This is a life story; life goes on.
I’ve finished reading book three and plan on completing the series sometime this summer or in the early fall. I feel like I should just post a link to my earlier reviews, or maybe invite you to come back later when I’m done with all four and can try to make sense of them in a more complete way.
Until then I can say that I’m still loving the books, enthralled by the characters, hoping they can work things out somehow. I’ve no idea how all of this will end and I’m not exactly looking forward to it. When you spend this much time with a character, it can be hard to say goodbye.
After ‘The Story of a New Name’ I needed a break, but I don’t give up easily, so after reading few other books I started on the third installment of the Neapolitan Novels. It was awesome, I devoured the book over a day and a half, I couldn’t stop reading it, I was annoyed when someone talked to me, I just wanted to be left alone and immerse myself.
The story continues from the point where the previous book stopped, we are reminded that the story is recounted by sixty-six years old Lenu, with her distance and experience. Lenu is drawn into the new cultured world of her fiancé’s family, she’s dazed and fascinated by it and at the same time feels uncertain, constantly seeking approval, making sure she is fits in, meets the expectations. She prepares to get married and move to Florence, happy to leave the neighborhood behind; she promotes her book. It seems Lenu is finally able to exist on her own, until Lila summons her.
This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail. Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished. It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance. And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.
The Red Rock actress tells Andrea Smith about her favourite purchases
I’m really enjoying Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels series. They’re beautifully written, and are set during the rise of communism in Italy. My fiancé Killian bought me the third one, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (€18.95,Easons.com) and I have to say it was a really good choice.
In high school my friends and I daydreamed about the big house we’d all buy together when we grew up. It would be a big house in Southern California, and every day would be a continuation of our glorious days of summer: dinner parties, Frisbee, car washes, greasy sandwiches, bonfires at the beach. We each had a role: handyman, cook, that guy who does all the spreadsheets.
Perhaps you all know how this ends. Perhaps it is hardly surprising for me to tell you that we are scattered now, that many of us no longer talk at all. I never told them this, but I didn’t want to live in California anyway.
To say we grew apart is a cheap explanation. It leaves much out. Growing apart—what does that mean? Why do some friendships grow and others grow apart? Where is the line between breathing space and total disconnection?
I read the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet over the span of three weeks, a pace that accelerated as my sense of urgency increased with each cliffhanger. The second volume took one week; the third, three days; and the last, I read between two p.m. and midnight one weekday afternoon starting with the first free moment I had at work.
I saw these books for the first time in December 2015 in Waterstones Bookshop. I was immediately attracted to the storyline so (as a result of a very BIG hint!!!) I received the first two as a Christmas gift and purchased Books 3 & 4 in January….I was in love!!!
There are four books in this series, all published by Europa Editions. These books were originally written in Italian but brilliantly translated into English by Ann Goldstein.
- Book 1 – My Brilliant Friend (Published 2012)
- Book 2 – The Story of a New Name (Published 2013)
- Book 3 – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Behind (Published 2014)
- Book 4 – The Story of the Lost Child (Published 2015)
As you can see the books were published in sequence annually, as they were supposed to be read one a year. I went for it & read the whole series, with a small break after Book 2, and completed the series at the end of February 2016.
These amazing books are primarily a story about female friendship set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950’s and winds its way through the lives of the characters throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.
If you’re looking for a series of books you can fall in love with, take a look at Elena Ferrante’s best-selling, four-book series of Neapolitan Novels. We noticed that the last book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, made a lot of “Best Books of 2015” lists including NPR, the New York Times and O Magazine, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. The books also made our list of favorites. You’re in for a treat!
Here’s a summary of each book for you:
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the series and it’s a modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors. My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.
The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.
When the famous frittelle arrived, the girls were elated, and so was Pietro, they fought over them. Only then Nino turned to me.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante
It’s only been a couple of months since my recipe from My Brilliant Friend. You’ll have to excuse my returning so quickly to Ferrante’s Naples – I sped through the final two books in her Neapolitan series and have thought of them almost constantly since. If you haven’t yet picked them up, I (once again) can’t recommend them highly enough.
December 15, 2015 — What happens when the most ambitious rethinking of the politics of realism in recent memory can’t be attached to a face? (Can they give the Nobel Prize to a pseudonym?) Now that the Neapolitan tetralogy is complete, it’s clear that Elena Ferrante’s decision to remain biographically unavailable is her greatest gift to readers, and maybe her boldest creative gesture. Her intransigence has protected these books from the ambient noise that threatens to engulf any truly original cultural artifact: the vaguely bullying blurb delirium (The Story of the Lost Child comes prefaced with seven pages of it); the debate over the cheesy pastel covers; the reports that Knausgaard fans and Ferrante partisans are brawling in Park Slope.1
Who really cares about any of it when the books are so sheerly interesting? Ferrante’s inaccessibility to public consumption feels designed to help her books survive whatever storms of silliness are kicked up by the enthusiasm they have sparked. Her self-erasure is more than a challenge to the celebrity logic of contemporary literary culture. It has meant that readers are forced—are free—to confront these novels in all their unassimilable intensity. To paraphrase the most pitiless sentence in the final installment: we’re going to have to resign ourselves to not seeing her.
This book, the third in the series, has an ache in it that grows as the story lengthens. It is about the absence of love and belonging, and the complications of motherhood.
The themes belong to us all and Ferrante intensifies them against the backdrop of Naples. She paints her story with the city’s colours, chosen for their truth from a palette that other cities struggle to match.
For most of this book the narrator, Elena Greco, is trapped in restless domesticity on the edge of a new life that fails to satisfy. Naples, with its entwined, familiar lives, is faded into a distance made foggy by new responsibilities in Florence.
1. The Martian by Andy Weir
2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
3. Euphoria by Lily King
4. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
7. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
8. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
9. The Alchemist (25th Anniversary Edition) by Paul Coelho
10. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante