My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?"
- from The Story of the Lost Child
I couldn't wait any longer to get back to the story of Elena and Lila. I had read the first three books of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels over the past five months, interspersed with my other reading. Now it was time to face up to the end; to find out how the relationship of these two women, built on a foundation of childhood friendship and resentment, would resolve itself.
In returning to the story, I quickly felt again my irritation with Elena. Do you ever feel the urge to reach into the pages of a novel you are reading, grab a character by the shoulders and shout, "No! Don't do it! You're being stupid! Can't you see that he is just like his sleazy, philandering father who disgusts you?" That's exactly how I felt throughout reading about Elena's grand passion for Nino. Really, Elena, he's such a jerk!
So, at the beginning of this book, Elena has abandoned her marriage to the professor, Pietro Airota, father of her two young daughters. Essentially, she also abandons, for long periods, those daughters, as she goes on the road following Nino and pursuing her career as a writer. She and Pietro arrive at a more or less amicable agreement for divorce and she expects that Nino will divorce his wife and then the two lovers will marry and live happily ever after. Silly woman! Nino, of course, keeps his marriage and thus his connection with the in-laws who sponsor his successes in life. He also keeps Elena as a bit on the side.
Okay. Those are the points that annoyed me about the character, Elena. But what I loved about this book, about all the books in the series, is the beautiful writing. With a precise and subtle prose, Ferrante evokes Naples of the '80s, '90s, and '00s with all of its political and social turmoil and violence, its cycle of poverty and the limitations imposed by social boundaries. And she shows us all of this through the ups and downs of the lifelong friendship of Lila and Elena.
Lila and Elena are so intricately and lovingly drawn that, even though the narrator is always Elena and we see things through her eyes, one feels that one is not just reading a story by one woman, one is living a story of two women. Living it, breathing it, experiencing the moments of triumph, of pleasure, but also the moments of unspeakable tragedy, loss, and manic grief.
While Elena experienced success as a writer and traveled around the world, Lila never left the old neighborhood. She stayed there and built her life. Along with Enzo, her partner, she built a successful computer company, state of the art for the '80s. In addition to their company, Lila and Enzo also produce a beautiful child, Tina. At the same time - literally - Elena and Nino produce a daughter. By now, Elena, too, has moved back to Naples and the two young girls grow and play together, even as their mothers did a generation before.
As Elena's writing career often takes her out of town, Lila takes care of her three daughters and becomes like a second mother to them.
This all sounds very prosaic, doesn't it? After all, it's just the story of two women who are living their lives along the paths they have chosen and experiencing all the love and loss and domestic dramas that are a part of sexual relationships with or without marriage and parenthood. And yet, the novels are so much more powerful than that simple explanation and it is difficult to put into words just why that is true.
Part of it may be that Ferrante manages to portray not just the lives of the two women but the life of the city and the country, and, indeed, world events of the period. I found particularly appealing and fascinating all of the history of Naples that she was able to weave into the story, especially in this final book. Having the historical context of the social and political boundaries and confinements made many of the events described so much more explicable.
Many reviewers have remarked upon the fact that these books read almost like an autobiography and the characters and events do seem very personal to the author. But that could be said of many literary masterpieces, and I am thinking particularly of many grand works of the nineteenth century with which it seems to me that these books have much in common. I think it is probably not a coincidence that when Lila and Elena come into some money in the first book, My Brilliant Friend, they decide to use it to buy a copy of Little Women. That decision comes up again at the end of this book. And, no, it is not a coincidence. Nothing about these books is coincidental. They are brilliant works of the imagination of a very talented writer.
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