Shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
You may remember I was ever so worried about Lila’s future, earlier in the year: Lila being the best friend of the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, the brilliant child whose parents refused to educate her and who decides that the only way out of grinding poverty is to marry up, financially speaking. The narrator, Elena, is luckier in that her parents were willing to make the financial sacrifices required for her to remain in education. I also found myself worrying on her behalf. Was she, like many before her and since, about to throw away her advantage by getting carried away with her boyfriend?
Thankfully, he has more sense than her.
Lila’s story is not so straightforward and her marriage is an abusive one. This is the Naples of the late 50′s and early 60′s and Lila can expect no support from her family. Still, a few bruises won”t knock her down. She is the brains behind her husband’s commercial enterprises and she soon finds ways to return the abuse. Like the – shall we say – creatively re-engineered bridal picture of herself, which hangs in the up-market shoe boutique, Lila is iconic. Though not very likeable, becoming downright unpleasant as time goes on. Everything about her life is dramatic and definitely not in a good way. I actually began to wonder why her husband, Stefano, put up with her for so long.
Lila’s dramas leave Elena playing second-fiddle. I get the impression, though I can’t say why, that Elena is the plain one. She’s certainly bespectacled. Clever though having to work at it. The setting designed to show off Lila’s dazzling diamond? And yet, the way I’m thinking at the end of book two, of more value.
I breathed a sign of relief when she won a scholarship to Pisa and was removed from Lila’s trajectory. At last, she’ll be able to strike out on her own, giving her time to heal from the emotional damage caused by Lila’s callousness. But Elena is nothing, if not self-deprecating.
"This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quietens down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on a page and it’s done."
Except it obviously isn’t. Something is holding Elena back from fully engaging with what should be the time of her life. Somethng that involved her first love, Lila, and a summer holiday with consequences.
By the end of this installment, however, Elena seems to have come to terms with the past, and has a fiancé of her own (although he is rather distant). I am rooting for her. Lila’s marital dramas have left me exhausted and I wonder at her capacity to inspire unswerving loyalty in those she treats badly. We know she disappears in book 3 (this is the prologue to book 1) but I don’t really care at this stage why, when or how. I want to see Elena emerge out of Lila’s shadow and be happy without her. I doubt that will happen – while this trilogy is providing a captivating social history of mid-20th Neapolitan life – it is primarily the story of a friendship and without Lila, there would be nothing to document.
My overwhelming impression at this stage, though – so much life, passion and drama in the lives of these two women, and they’re only in their early twenties. Seems like the young ‘uns of today don’t have the copyright on growing up early.