The third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels series opens with the last time protagonist Elena, a celebrated novelist, will ever see her best friend. In My Brilliant Friend, they grew up from childhood; in the second volume, The Story of a New Name, they found husbands. Now they're in their 60s; Lila's hair has turned white. As the two women walk down the sidewalk, they come upon a crowd gathered around a woman who has fallen dead in a flowerbed near the church. Readers of the earlier novels will recognize this character, having watched her grow up alongside Elena and Lila. Naples is changing. In fact, all of Italy is in political turmoil.
Lila was once the brilliant and creative entrepreneur of a handmade footwear company. Now she works a brutal job on the floor of a sausage factory and lives in a rundown building with her son. She urges Elena to leave her out of her writing. Elena does just the opposite. And with that, the story plunges back 40 years, picking up at Elena's book-signing, which concluded the previous novel. When her old flame Nino shows up at the party, Elena is prepared to risk everything for him, including her engagement to another man.
Meanwhile Nino's father has recognized himself in one of Elena's "fictional" characters--a predatory family man--and published a condemning review of her novel. The plot twists and turns as relationships deepen, change and sometimes explode. Children begin to resemble their parents. Lila's son, assumed to be fathered by Nino, starts looking very much like someone else. The two women are growing in opposite directions: Lila gets caught up in the struggle for workers' rights while her friend becomes a famous debut novelist. Elena's attempts to escape the gossip and small minds of the old neighborhood fail as forces of the past drag her home to try to save her younger sister from a disastrous marriage.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is as sumptuous as its two predecessors, and the narrative drive here is the strongest yet. The stakes are high, with the introduction of protesting workers, student activists and babes in arms. Ferrante's genius lies in her startling emotional realism and blunt honesty about social interactions. As her series--which is best taken as a whole--moves forward and reflects European history, she seasons the prose with provocative perceptions not unlike the way Proust did, but her neighborhood of squalid blue-collar lives and passionate secrets is pure Italian soap opera raised to a loftier level of literary art. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.