This third volume of the Neopolitan trilogy continues to chronicle the turbulent lives of longtime friends Lila and Elena, as begun in the enigmatic Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012) and The Story of a New Name (2013).
With Naples and the looming specter of Vesuvius once again forming the ominous background to the girls’ lives, Elena travels from the city of her childhood, first to the university in Pisa, and then beyond upon her marriage to Pietro, the intellectual heir to an influential Milanese family. Lila’s existence in Naples follows a more brutal and mundane course, but both young women are confronted with the social and political upheavals that echoed across Italy (and the world) during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Always rivals as well as friends, Lila and Elena struggle to assert themselves in a landscape of shifting alliances and growing corruption in Naples as well as in a culture where women’s desires almost never direct the course of family life. The domestic balancing acts performed by both women—one leading a life of privilege, one burdened by poverty and limited choice—illuminate the personal and political costs of self-determination. The pseudonymous Ferrante—whose actual identity invites speculation in the literary world—approaches her characters’ divergent paths with an unblinking objectivity that prevents the saga from sinking into melodrama. Elena is an exceptional narrator; her voice is marked by clarity in recounting both external events and her own internal dialogues (though we are often left to imagine Lila’s thought process, the plight of the non-narrative protagonist). Goldstein’s elegant translation carries the novel forward toward an ending that will leave Ferrante’s growing cadre of followers wondering if this reported trilogy is destined to become a longer series.
Ferrante’s lucid rendering of Lila’s and Elena’s entwined yet discrete lives illustrates both that the personal is political and that novels of ideas can compel as much as their lighter-weight counterparts.