The Bookskeptic

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante

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 roles seem to have changed, Lila needs Lenu, she is falling apart, her life took its toll and she cannot continue anymore. Lenu listens to Lila’s story and does her best to help her, using her writing and connections of her new family. She stays in Naples as long as Lila needs her. Later Lenu leaves, they stay in touch but they drift in and out in their relationship.

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.

With time Lila’s situation improves a lot, while Lenu struggles to combine her new life as a wife and as a mother with her aspirations as a writer involved in politics and feminism. She fights and struggles for her identity, her time, her freedom.

He had become, it seemed to me, a figure of regret, the synthesis of what I was at risk of not becoming, even though I had the opportunity. We were born in the same environment, both had brilliantly got out of it. Why then was I sliding in despair? Because of marriage? Because of motherhood and Dede? Because I was a woman, because I had to take care of house and family and clean up shit and change diapers?

The perspective of this book is much wider than the previous one, we see the story of Lenu’s and Lila’s relationship, but also the story of the world changing in the sixties and seventies. It is a story of political violence spreading in waves through the entire country. It is a story of emerging feminism, of women not accepting anymore men talking about them like this, but men in the neighborhood still not noticing the change:

A real man puts the woman in her place. She’s not capable of cooking? She learns. The house is dirty? She cleans it. A real man can make woman do everything. For example: I met a woman a while ago who didn’t know how to whistle. Well we were together for two hours only – hours of fire –and afterward I said to her: Now whistle. She – you won’t believe it – whistled. If you know how to train a woman, good. If you don’t know how to train her, forget about her, you’ll get hurt.

Lenu tries to get away from the legacy of the neighbourhood, she wants to build her life in opposition of her childhood, to create her life in new cultured environment, where reason rules emotions not the other way around.

How much I had lost by leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life. Lila, who had remained, had a very new job, she earned a lot of money, she acted in absolute freedom and according to schemes that were indecipherable.[…] Hers was a life in motion, mine was stopped.

It is also a story of Lenu trying to free herself from Lila, trying to assert her own value and yet always obsessively coming back to comparing herself to Lila and resolving again to stop doing it. She goes in circles, her need of acceptance re-emerges all the time. When she thinks she is free from Lila she craves somebody else’s approval. She constantly creates herself to satisfy other people even if she doesn’t realize it, but she is also getting more and more mature and aware, tries to take control of her life.

Become. It was a verb that always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself as an adult, outside of her.

The book was really amazing, showing through Lenu’s life the changes happening to the whole society, but through Lila’s life showing how things never change in the local scale, how Solaras still have hold on the neighbourhood, how old relationships mutate but last. I think this scale was what I was missing in the second book, comparison between global and local, putting Lenu’s and Lila’s story in wider context, all of this is brilliantly achieved in this book.

Have you read the Neapolitan Novels? Which one was your favorite? What do you think about Lila?