In the second novel of her trilogy, Ferrante continues the story of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two Neapolitan girls born in 1944 Italy into poor families in a working class neighborhood. When we left them in My Brilliant Friend, 16-year-old Lila had married the prosperous grocer Stefano, the son of the “ogre” Don Achille. Elena, no match for her friend in looks but a successful and hardworking student, feels that her world is falling apart. Her best friend, with whom she expected to work together to leave the neighborhood for a better life, has left her for marriage, and it seems that Elena’s best efforts at school will not buy her a ticket out. She pines for the handsome intellectual Nino Sarratore, formerly of the neighborhood, son of a poet, unhappy and restless. At Lila and Stefano’s reception, Stefano has done two things that he swore to Lila he would not do, and the reader was left waiting for the angry and fearless Lila to react.
In book two, Ferrante takes us through Lila and Elena’s teens and into the early 1960s. Elena, after a brief depression and abandonment of her studies, has returned to high school with a new vigor. Lila’s marriage is stormy to say the least, and deeply unhappy. The same could be said of the two girls’ relationship with each other. Elena misses her friend and desires her companionship, while at the same time fearing her competition as the resident successful smart girl. Lila can be incredibly selfless and generous with Elena and her other friends, but she can also be petty, mean and jealous. And while Lila has no qualms about saying what she thinks and making things happen to her liking, Elena is accommodating to a fault. She represses her desires and is not completely honest with Lila, her boyfriend or her teachers. She recognizes this in herself, reflecting,
With Nino it was different. I felt I had to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance and the few things I knew and he didn’t.
I managed to demonstrate that I was smart and deserving of respect by never appearing arrogant, by being ironic about my ignorance, by pretending to be surprised at my good results.
When Lila can’t (or won’t) get pregnant, her husband and family decide to send her to the beach for rest, and Elena is invited along. The weeks at the beach provide a key turning point in the story, as Elena’s crush, Nino, is there, too. While Nino and Lila had not hit it off on previous occasions, something happens that summer. The two people Elena loves and esteems the most become involved in a disastrous way, and Elena allows herself to be dragged into the middle of it. The fallout from that summer pushes Elena and Lila further apart, with Elena finishing school and moving to Pisa for university. Lila, meanwhile, runs away from her husband twice, has a child, and at the end of the novel, is in the process of remaking herself again from scratch.
The themes that Ferrante deals with in these novels have to do with alienation, generational tensions and the possibility for change, and women’s roles in society. Both Lila and Elena fear losing themselves, not having control over defining who they are, of being dominated and subsumed by others, particularly the men in their lives. Lila often reacts to this with sudden and intense, sometimes violent, responses. This leads to violence against her in turn. For example, on her wedding night, when she has railed against Stefano for his betrayal of her, Stefano beat her, leaving visible bruises. We know that this was a common occurrence in their neighborhood and one which led most people to admire Stefano for putting Lila in her place.
Elena, on the other hand, can be defeatist; she seems to want someone — Lila, Nino, one of her boyfriends — to lead and guide her rather than taking charge of her own life. Elena also feels the limitations of her working class background. In Pisa, while she is an excellent student, she sees that merit is not enough to get her what she wants. She feels a chasm exists between her and the students of the upper class who seem to effortlessly know things about society and the world. In Elena’s words,
I didn’t know the map of prestige.
Ferrante’s writing is reminiscent of the great Russian novelists. I was reminded of Tolstoy, with the stories of so many families that it’s hard to keep them straight sometimes (there is a helpful list of families, individuals, and interrelationships at the start of each novel). Moreover, there is a soap-operatic element to both Tolstoy’s and Ferrante’s story telling that is irresistible. The personal relationships, illicit affairs, psychological trauma — this is the stuff of sweeping dramas and all told in a beautiful and mesmerizing way (and translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein). Some of my favorite passages have to do with Elena’s observations about her parents and neighbors, exposing her fears of turning into them and never escaping the neighborhood. This one in particular, about the women of the neighborhood, made a strong impression:
They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders…. And, good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me. Yet they appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls…. They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble…. And would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighborhood prevail again..?
Lila and Elena’s desire to move forward, their fears, and their choices as a young women — some admirable, some frustrating — really drive these stories forward and make them so incredibly good, maybe the best books I’ve read this year. As I mentioned in my review of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante makes Elena and Lila very real, exposing their warts, but at the same time making them sympathetic, heroic even. I can’t wait to get to the third and final installment.