The third chapter in the Neapolitan Quartet
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2014, pp. 400, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third Neapolitan novel, Elena and Lila, the two girls whom readers first met in My Brilliant Friend, have become women. Lila married at sixteen and has a young son; she has left her husband and the comforts her marriage brought and now works as a common laborer. Elena has left the neighborhood, earned her college degree, and published a successful novel, all of which has opened the doors to a world of learned interlocutors and richly furnished salons. Both women have attempted are pushing against the walls of a prison that would have seen them living a life of misery, ignorance and submission. They are afloat on the great sea of opportunities that opened up during the nineteen-seventies. Yet they are still very much bound to each other by a strong, unbreakable bond.
The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #2-4) by Elena Ferrante
I really, really liked Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is an incredibly blase way to compliment a book so raw and confrontational and, well, brilliant. The remaining three books in the Neapolitan Novels series build on the strong momentum established by the first and, in the process, continue to be some of the most poignant reading I’ve experienced in ages. The feelings that these books provoked in me were strong and visceral, inflamed and tender in their ebb and flow. These are not feel-good stories, but they don’t feel gratuitous in their misery, either. As a woman, my vicarious anger has an undercurrent of resignation, because each injustice and pointed strike at Lila and Elena — the character — (but also, all of the other Neapolitan women in the books) rings a little too true to feel like emotional manipulation.
Taking place from the 1950’s all the way through the 2010’s, beyond coming of age into mature adulthood, the series chronicles the personal and professional achievements and failures of two very intelligent women who are both products of their time, but who also rise above the expectations of the era and of the microculture in their misogynistic, violent Naples neighborhood. For all that they are exceptional, though, the neighborhood has indelibly tagged them. Lila, despite her potential, is never able to leave, while Elena, despite a fancy education and a high-class marriage, is still condescended to because of her background, never allowed to forget how she is different.
The Story of a New Name takes place immediately after Lila’s marriage to the neighborhood grocer, the young man in charge of one of only two of the neighborhood’s prosperous families. Getting bogged down in the details of the plot of each book is kind of missing the point, so I will try to avoid doing it, but I mention the marriage because this is the single moment that changes the two women’s lives. It is the first and most concrete piece of evidence that the lives they are “meant” to have, as women, are not for them. Lila begins chafing at her vows and new identity (her new name) before the ceremony is even over, and the rest of this installment is, for her, about how she struggles to carve out necessary freedoms for herself, both inside and outside of her marriage. Meanwhile, Elena has left the neighborhood to attend secondary school and university. Academically, there is no denying her talent, but she has what we would, now, instantly identify as impostor syndrome, in spades, and she is nearly undone on multiple occasions by a crippling sense of inauthenticity. When she speaks among her educated friends, she always feels like she is pretending at intelligence, only hiding her poor vulgarity; when she as at home in Naples she simultaneously desires to impress with her accomplishments and be accepted as one of them, unchanged. It’s the story of moving within of two communities, but not truly being a part of either.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a masterful thesis on the feminist axiom “the personal is the political.” It puts a point on the inseparable bond between the women’s professional endeavors and the sociopolitical mores they engage with. Discovering feminism in an official capacity, Elena incisively observes the relationships between women and men in her writing and is struck by the messiness of applying what should be clear-headed logic on the subject to her own relationships with men. As much as this book is about Elena and Lila’s marriages and families, though, it is still at its core very much about the friendship between the two women. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, it is an undeniably strained relationship, but the strength in their bond is something beyond amiable appeasement and shared interests. There is something deeper and more elemental that binds them. At times, you wonder why they still bother being friends, with the various trespasses, minor and otherwise, that they commit against each other. But Elena is forcefully inspired by Lila; she’s an unyielding, driving specter in Elena’s creative mind and she represents the well of genius that Elena is only able to access when she’s at her most honest and candid.
A notable condition of the second and third books is that Elena and Lila are separated, so a lot of what Elena reports about Lila’s life is second-hand information, information she finds out much later and is writing in retrospect, or information that was taken straight from a diary that Lila gives Elena for “safekeeping.” This all worked for me to keep Lila involved in the story and to keep Elena connected to her, but finally in The Story of the Lost Child the women are together again, living in Naples. The official reunion is ostensibly a happy one, but many of their interactions remain terse. Elena, who has always written from the perspective of someone who is constantly compared to her friend and found wanting, now feels increasingly compelled to justify herself and her choices to Lila in the flesh. Raising their children together, Elena struggles with how, despite their wildly different paths, they have still ended up in the same place. She interrogates the decisions that led her, a moderately successful woman with her own notoriety, to still have been so moved by men that her and Lila, now both raising children as single women, appear on the surface level to have minimized themselves and their ambitions so to remain comfortably in the neighborhood, just as all of the other girls without the same intelligence and drive did. It’s too reductive to say that it’s merely sad, or disappointing, that Elena winds up where she did, or that Lila’s growing position in the neighborhood seems to come at the direct expense of Elena’s current popularity as an author, as if they sit on opposite ends of a see-saw and one is always looking down on the other if either of them is to be much off the ground.
Ferrante’s character Elena is a writer, and she writes a lot of this meta-criticism about the flaws in her writing. Primarily, despite Elena’s formal education surpassing Lila’s by several stages, Elena attributes to Lila’s writing an unparalleled quality of natural brevity. Elena is always struck by her own writing having a false affect, while revering the clarity of Lila’s unstudied prose as the epitome of skill. As a reader, I’m struck by Ferrante’s skill with language, and — with this feeling possibly being magnified by Ferrante being a pseudonymous author, and wondering how much of this work is auto/biographical — I can’t help but notice that the lauded qualities of Lila’s writing appear to more or less describe Ferrante’s. (Or Elena’s voice, as depicted by Ferrante. How meta is this exactly? Is this Ferrante suggesting that Elena more successfully adopted those attributes of her friend’s writing than she gave herself credit for? Or that it was Elena herself whose writing had those characteristics, but her bouts of inferiority blinded her to it? Or is it Ferrante, herself, at the top line, voicing her authorial insecurities through her character?) In any case, the writing is magnificent. As I’ve seen it said, the pages practically turn themselves. The language is frugal but expansive inside the reader’s mind — a true case of “leaving it to the imagination.” I’m continually astonished at how much Ferrante does with so little, syntactically.
If you weren’t put off by this unhelpfully vague review, I urge you to read these books. I have tried to touch on a few reasons why I find them so excellent, but even more than those definable things there is just something about them overall that makes them unforgettable.
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.