Wall Street Journal


Book Review: ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante

A startlingly frank portrait of a friendship between two women struggling to reinvent themselves.


Sept. 5, 2014 5:03 p.m. ET

Encountering someone you haven’t seen for decades can be pretty shocking, but how much more so if they’re lying dead in front of you. In the opening of Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” two Neapolitan women around the age of 60, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, are taking a walk together early one morning on the stradone when a young man shouts that a body has been found in a flower bed by the church.
Elena doesn’t recognize the corpse, but Lila does. It’s their childhood friend Gigliola, a beauty who married a rich, powerful man from the neighborhood. But the body in the flower bed is overweight, clad in a shabby green raincoat; her face is a ruin, and one of her shoes has been kicked off to reveal a gray stocking with a hole at the big toe.

As Gigliola’s body is taken away, Elena wonders what had happened to her. “I thought of that face in profile on the dirt, of how thin the long hair was, of the whitish patches of skull. How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.”

Ms. Ferrante is a master at creating violent images like this one, scenes of despair and revulsion, and stories of outrageous acts and repressed emotions that permanently damage her characters’ lives. “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” is the third volume in the Italian author’s brilliant epic tale of two lifelong friends who grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Naples at the end of World War II. The first novel, “My Brilliant Friend” (2012), is an account of their girlhood in the 1950s. Elena is a porter’s daughter, and Lila’s father is a shoemaker, but both have dreams of escaping the working class. Stifling marriages for both women and the pressures of adult life—Lila has entered the family business, and Elena has gone to university in Pisa—mark the second novel, “The Story of a New Name” (2013).

The latest novel, which, like the previous two, has been elegantly translated by Ann Goldstein, is set in the 1960s and ’70s. Elena is now a successful author. (Ms. Ferrante, who is famously reclusive and writes under a pseudonym, has admitted that a great deal of her work is autobiographical.) The book looks back on the young adulthood of the two women, a period during which Elena moves to Florence but returns frequently to Naples, where Lila has remained.

We’ve all grown up with friends who as children shared our closest secrets but from whom we later drift apart. Through Elena, who is the narrator in the series, we learn about Lila (who is also called Lina) and their

rivalry. They learn Latin and Greek together, fight rough boys in school and speak in dialect as prettiness alternates between them. Elena, bookish and eager to please, has always been in awe of Lila, who is beautiful, fearless and rebellious, utterly indifferent to the opinions of others, and often mean. Lila is also a natural writer, and Elena is afraid that her friend will end up becoming “someone” and that she will be left behind. “Become,” she writes. “It was a verb that had always obsessed me. . . .I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. . . . I had wanted to become something—here was the point—only because I was afraid that Lina would become someone and I would stay behind.”

The opposite occurs. It’s tough for any child trying to survive the stultifying brutality of a slum to get an education, but Elena persuades her parents to let her remain in school. By sheer hard work she obtains a university scholarship and moves up the social ladder, marrying a professor from a prominent intellectual Milanese family. Meanwhile, Lina drops out of school in fifth grade because her father stops paying her tuition. She gives up her studies, ends up in a disastrous, short-lived marriage and eventually goes to work in a sausage factory.

The truth is that Elena is no less trapped by her life than Lila is, but she is loath to admit it. Elena’s husband is a pedantic bore and a terrible lover. But when Elena’s first child is born after an atrocious labor, she lies to Lila, telling her that it was a wonderful experience. Lila responds acidly: “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.'”

Now, in the present, Elena works on her book looking out over the river Po in Turin. She hasn’t seen her friend for five years: Lila has disappeared without a trace. In the last conversation the friends had before Lila disappeared, Elena promised that she would never write their story, but her book is a betrayal of that promise.

While Ms. Ferrante sees her characters through class war, student revolution, and clashes between communists and neo-fascists, her focus is on their interior lives. Her novels present an intimate, often startlingly frank portrait of a friendship between two women who are struggling in the face of rapidly changing sexual politics to break from the old ways and reinvent themselves on their own terms.

One of Ms. Ferrante’s greatest gifts is her fearless way of putting into words uncomfortable, ugly thoughts that are usually left unsaid. As Elena’s relationship with her husband begins to disintegrate, she writes: “Marriage by now seemed to me an institution that, contrary to what one might think, stripped coitus of all humanity.”

The depth of perception Ms. Ferrante shows about her character’s conflicts and psychological states is astonishing. At times what she writes is so painful that it is unbearable to read. At one point in “Those Who Leave,” Elena writes of men: “They show up inside us and withdraw, leaving, concealed in our flesh, their ghost, like a lost object.” Ms. Ferrante’s best-selling 2002 novel, “The Days of Abandonment,” was as raw a description of a disintegrating marriage as I’ve ever come across.

Even though she has published six books, we know little about Ms. Ferrante’s personal life, apart from the fact that she grew up in Naples, has a degree in classics, was a teacher, has children and probably lives alone. When her first novel, “Troubling Love,” was published in 1991, she announced that “books once they are written have no need of their authors.” Since then she has refused to do any publicity or to be identified, though I don’t believe for a minute, as some members of the Italian press have suggested, that she might be a man.

It’s not hard to see why Ms. Ferrante would want to keep her privacy. Her novels ring so true and are written with such empathy that they sound confessional. In “Those Who Leave,” she plays with the idea of autobiographical narrative within narrative. Elena, in her novel, describes a disagreeable sexual encounter with an older man on a beach on Ischia, based on her own experience (and, we wonder, Ms. Ferrante’s?). Alas, social mores may have changed in other parts of Italy, but in Naples they have remained stagnant. Elena returns to her old neighborhood flush with her novel’s success, expecting approval from her friends and family. Instead, she is deeply ashamed when she finds out that they’re appalled by her book. “I had the impression that people stared at me insistently, spiteful shadows of a world I no longer inhabited.” A newspaper calls it a salacious memoir, and one of the men she has known from childhood asks sarcastically: “Is that what they taught you at the university?” Another wants to know: “How long does it take to get to the dirty pages?” Only Gigliola, the woman found dead in the flower bed at the beginning of the book, expresses her admiration. She tells Elena timidly how brave she was to write “those things. . . . just the way it happens, with the same filthiness. They are secrets that you know only if you’re a woman.”

—Ms. Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”

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