This is the third book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Elena Grecco, narrates the story from the present, probably at about age 60. Her lifelong friend, Lila, has disappeared in recent months, and she recounts their lifelong relationship. The first two books described their childhood in a poor neighborhood of Naples. The second book follows them as adolescents, their world expands out of the neighborhood and into adulthood, with both girls following very different paths. At the beginning of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila has married, left her husband and is working in a factory. Elena, in contrast has finished her University studies in Milan, has recently published a book, and is about to be married and move to Florence.
The book chronicles the women in their twenties and early thirties, in the midst of student uprisings, violent clashes between fascists and communists, and the changing circumstances of their childhood friends and families. The turmoil of the 60s and 70s in Italy is a moment in history that I have only a slight familiarity with, I remember the Red Brigade, and student violence, but not the causes or the outcomes. At times I wished I had a better understanding of Italian history, but it didn’t detract from the book in any way. Class is a major theme in the book, educated versus uneducated, wealthy versus poor, themes that are still newsworthy today.
The book is often described as a portrait of friendship, but this is not an easy friendship. Elena, although educated and a published author, feels inferior to Lila. Lila is the smarter of the two, she wrote brilliantly as a child, is clever and sharp. Elena feels that she has to work harder to write, doesn’t grasp concepts as quickly. She also believes she is less attractive than Lila. Throughout her life, Elena has felt that their friendship is unbreakable, that they are two halves that make a whole. Yet, the jealousies, the lack of candor, lack of intimacy disappoint her. What Lila feels about the friendship is harder to know, she is often mean and aloof, she disparages Elena for not making more of her education, for writing badly, for marrying. Yet she needs Elena, and Elena believes she needs Lila. Ursula LeGuin wrote in her blog that she didn’t finish the books because she felt that the female friendship fraught with jealousies was too cliché. I admit that as I read the book I wondered why Elena Lila remained friends. Lila constantly criticizes, but can’t take criticism herself. Elena most often suppresses her feelings with for fear of offending her. The few times she is honest, Lila gets angry. Their friendship does not fulfill the ideal we crave, particularly in a culture in which we are encouraged to be honest and communicate. On the other hand, how many people are able to always be honest and retain their friends over a lifetime? Elena and Lila’s friendship isn’t pretty, but it is very real.
Beyond portraying a friendship “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” asks: can we get away from our past? Does changing geography make a difference? Or is life merely an accumulation of baggage that you can carry with you or unpack at home? Elena moves away from Naples, but she is constantly drawn back. Those in Naples praise her success and her good fortune in leaving. Yet, no matter where she is, she struggles as a writer, and as a thinker. She is never confident in herself or her thoughts. She allows her self-worth to be determined by others, both positive and negative, just as she did as a child.Early in the book, as she looks back at her life she says “It’s not the neighborhood that ‘s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.” I’m curious to read the final book, to learn if Elena ultimately is shrewd or not.