First, I’m thrilled to report that this third installment in the Neapolitan Novels series is not the last! The fourth is due later this year, and it’s a good thing because this novel, like the previous, like every good soap opera, leaves us hanging. How have these stories not been turned into a televised series?
In book three, Ferrante takes us further into the loves and lives of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. Friends since childhood in working class Naples, they have become somewhat estranged as adults. Elena, who always aspired to get away from the neighborhood and her family, has gotten her wish. After completing university studies in Pisa, she has written a best selling novel and has married into the Airota family, esteemed intellectuals from Genoa. Her husband Pietro is a very young university professor in Florence, her mother- and sister-in-law are outgoing, educated and well connected in political and social circles, and they seem to embrace Elena. In no time, Elena and Pietro have had two daughters and by outward appearances, she has the world on a string: married, successful, better than her origins, and yet … Elena is not happy. She feels that she has lost herself, become subordinate, exactly the kind of life she didn’t want, and when Nino Sarratore reappears, her life is further thrown into uproar. He encourages her intellectual pursuits in a way Pietro never has, and he leads her to question the way she is living her life.
Lila’s fortunes have fallen dramatically since the last novel. Having left her wealthy husband for an affair and child, Lila is now alone and penniless. Her own family and neighborhood have rejected her: her family blames her for their ill fortune and the neighbors take malicious delight in her turnaround, all except for Pasquale, the resident Communist, and Enzo, a childhood friend. Lila turns to Bruno Soccavo, a friend from her summer at the beach, for help; he owns the sausage factory outside Naples and agrees to hire her as factory labor. Working conditions are miserable and Lila’s health deteriorates. Complicating the situation even more, Lila attends a couple of communist party meetings, speaks up, and has her words reprinted in a pamphlet disseminated outside the Soccavo factory. Violence between communists and fascists erupts outside, and Lila’s life takes another unexpected turn — she returns to the neighborhood, and she and Enzo become financially secure technicians in the burgeoning computer industry. But at what price? Has Lila sold out to the Solara family, her sworn enemies since childhood, in order get this security?
In this third novel, the historical backdrop plays a major role in plot development, particularly the women’s movement and the revolutionary political movements involving students and workers from 1968 onward. As far as the latter is concerned, Ferrante does a beautiful job of showing the clash not just between fascists (who often have police support) and communists but also the rift between the revolutionary movement’s intelligentsia and those whom it purports to represent — the working class. For example, Pietro’s sister Mariarosa is involved in revolutionary politics in northern Italy, she is loved and respected by other intellectuals, but she has no personal knowledge of the working class struggle. She and others like her imitate the language and outward appearance of working class, but live in nice apartments and dine at fine restaurants while holding professorships at universities. When Lila complains to Pasquale and his rich, upper class girlfriend Nadia (whose mother, Professor Galiani, taught Elena) about their interference in the factory and the trouble it brought her, they insist that the leaders of the party (intellectuals) know best and that everything will work as planned. Pasquale and Nadia are especially brutal to Elena when she comes to Lila’s aid at Lila’s request. Elena uses her husband’s family connections to help Lila deal with the fallout from the factory, but Nadia and Pasquale are disgusted because Elena helped one person while they are trying to raise up an entire class. This is especially hurtful to Elena because Lila hears what they say and agrees with them.
The women’s movement is key to the plot development around Elena. Despite her hard work and success as a writer and in getting away from her neighborhood, she marries someone who has no appreciation for her intellect. Pietro’s expectations for her are quite traditional, and while her mother-in-law Adele and Mariarosa are encouraging, Elena feels that they do so out of a feeling of obligation, to be nice, because she represents the class of people they are trying to help, because she now is part of their esteemed family and has their name, and not because she is genuinely smart and talented. Pietro opposes birth control and Elena becomes pregnant almost immediately, which puts the brakes on a budding career as a free lance journalist. Elena sees many women in her place — expected to take on traditional roles, not recognized as individuals in their own right with a contribution to make. Eventually, this leads her to a new writing project, encouraged by Mariarosa, Adele and Nino: the invention of woman by man. The idea behind this essay and research project is that throughout history, every man has tried to change the woman he is with, indicating that she is not enough as she is; every man is looking for
… the woman he imagined he himself would be if he were a woman… and … when he no longer senses me as part of himself, he feels betrayed.
This view of women as an extension of men, as a subservient part of them, is evident in several characters, but the one who defies the norm is Lila. Lila is the one woman in these novels whom men seem to esteem for the talents she possesses. One character says that if he were a woman, he would want to be like Lila. Another says,
…she has the type of mind that normally no woman has but also that not even we men have.
It is interesting to note, however, that Lila does not necessarily feel empowered and in control. In this novel in particular, she suffers from what sound like panic or anxiety attacks, and what she refers to as “dissolving margins,” which seems to be related to a feeling of loss of control, or a world spinning out of control. Being creative and having a great mind can only get you so far when you are a woman and from the wrong class.
By the end of the novel, Lila seems to have regained stability and success while Elena has made a radical choice that will shake up her family life and possibly her career. Elena thinks Lila has sold out, while Lila thinks Elena is a fool. As usual, Ferrante shows a realistic friendship that sometimes elicits love and devotion, and sometimes involves hatred and disgust. I cannot wait to read #4 and I hope there’s a #5 in the offing, too.