My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Each of us narrates our life as it suits us." - Lila Cerullo in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
This is the third in Elena Ferrante's acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet of novels which chronicle the lifelong friendship of Lila and Elena. In this one, the women have reached their mid-twenties and we follow them to their early thirties. The time is 1969 to the mid-'70s.
I think it would be a huge mistake to try to read any one of these novels as a stand-alone or to read them out of order. Each one builds on the previous book(s) and each is a continuation of that narration of two lives.
Here we find that Lila, having left the comforts or at least the prestige offered by her marriage to the businessman Stefano, is working at a sausage factory and living, along with her young son, with her childhood friend Enzo who is in love with her. They maintain a platonic relationship.
Lila is overworked and stressed out, struggling to survive financially, emotionally, and intellectually. The brilliant child that she had been had been forced to leave school early and chose marriage as her escape. When that didn't work out, she left the marriage and is now trying to make it on her own. That isn't working so well either.
Elena, of course, has been luckier. She received lots of help and support from teachers and others who believed in her along the way and she was able to complete college and write a novel that proved very successful. It was a novel that shocked many in her old neighborhood with its frank discussion of sexual relationships.
At the beginning of this book, she is engaged to be married to a brilliant young professor from an upper class family, a man who is her intellectual equal. The book follows their first few years of marriage and the births of their two daughters. As a wife and new mother, Elena, too, is harassed and stressed out by her marital and parental responsibilities, unable to write. She is miserable.
All around the women and their families, Italy and Europe and, indeed, the Western world are exploding in the late '60s and '70s with political and social unrest. Their old neighborhood of Naples is becoming even more violent and childhood friends are involved in the labor movement and the violent clashes between communists and fascists. Some of them lose their lives in the violence.
Meanwhile, Elena is on the sidelines and seeking a way in and a way to write about what is happening. She becomes interested in the feminist movement and, in her own way, pulls Lila along.
In this book, the women's friendship is sorely tested time and again. But at the lowest point in Lila's life, the person she asks for is Elena and when Elena comes and sees the state she is in, she resolves to help her, even though at times she hates her and wishes her dead.
Through her efforts, Lila and Enzo are able to get better jobs and to improve their condition. But Elena still is suffering a drought in her writing career.
So many events from the girls' childhood and their earlier lives come back to play pivotal points in this story - which is why it is so important to read the books in order. That time that Lila designed a shoe in book one comes back to be talked about and to play a part in book three. The day that Elena and Lila skipped school and walked as far away from the neighborhood as they could - it was Lila who finally wanted to turn back; or when Lila held a knife to a man's throat to protect herself and Elena; all of these prior events are still a part of the narrative.
Ferrante seems to say that it is from such events that may have seemed rather insignificant at the time that the fabric of female friendship is woven. It is not at all a simple or smooth fabric. It is bumpy with every human emotion including such negative ones as fear, rage, and jealousy. But there is also respect and the unbreakable thread of shared experiences that keeps it all together.
These novels are so extraordinary for showing the choices that Elena and Lila are forced to make as they attempt to escape the poverty and violence of their neighborhood. And this particular novel shows how some of those choices that may have seemed right at the time turned out to be serious mistakes.
Elena, for example, for all of her laudable attempts to help Lila, makes some personal choices here that cast her in a very bad light and that I suspect will prove, in the fourth book, to be a source of regret. But for that we'll have to wait and see, won't we?
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