Near the end of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the narrator, also named Elena, prepares to meet a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in many years. She bathes and dresses her children and then readies herself, trying on every dress she owns. But nothing looks right. “I resigned myself to being what I was,” she writes.
The necessity and impossibility of such a resignation is a major theme in all of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a series in which her latest is the third of four projected books. The first two novels describe Elena Greco’s childhood in an impoverished neighborhood in mid-20th century Naples. A precocious student, she uses her academic aptitude to escape the harsh and violent world of her youth. But the shadows and personalities of the old neighborhood keep reappearing, refusing to relinquish their grasp on her.
The third book resumes with Elena in her early 20s in the late ’60s and ’70s, a recent college graduate whose first novel has just been published. She’s engaged to Pietro Airota, a wealthy young man from a well-connected Florentine family. Pietro is an intellectual atheist who doesn’t want to be married in a Catholic church. Neither does Elena, but her traditional mother is appalled, yelling that only a whore would not be not married before God.
Elena’s friends and family in Naples feel a grudging admiration for her polished fiancé and her successful novel, but they’re torn by conflicting impulses. They want to remind her where she comes from and that she’s no better than them, but they also want to celebrate her singularity. She is different from those who stayed behind, and this is a source of pain and pride.
No character better embodies this mixture of affection and envy than Elena’s closest friend, Lila Cerullo. Lila and Elena almost form a composite character, their disparate fates always entwined like two aspects of a single being. Each shares in the sorrows and achievements of the other. Lila was also a brilliant student, but she dropped out of school in fifth grade, lived and worked in the neighborhood, and endured a miserable marriage that she eventually fled.
She desperately wants Elena to realize her powers as a writer, as if the success of her friend could compensate for her own squandered talents. Sobbing, she encourages Elena to write something amazing, “I want you to do better, it’s what I want most, because who am I if you aren’t great, who am I?”
Even as Elena settles in to married life in a spacious Florence apartment, the language of Naples stays with her. She often switches from Italian to Neapolitan dialect when she speaks to friends and family. Meanwhile, the cultivated Italian that she worked so hard to master has been abandoned by some of the privileged young liberals in Florence. To show solidarity with the working class, they use the foulest language possible.
Elena floats uncomfortably between two linguistic and social worlds, never sure whether she fully belongs to the squalor and violence of her past in southern Italy or the cultured prosperity of her present life in the north. Back in Naples, Lila is agitating for better working conditions at the sausage factory where she works, and the situation quickly turns dangerous. Elena becomes involved, and she’s drawn back into the entangling dramas of the old neighborhood.
Reading Ferrante is an extraordinary experience. There’s a powerful and unsettling candor in her writing; Elena loves Lila, but she also acknowledges that on some level she wishes her friend would die. The narrator’s voice is familiar and confiding, but her gaze settles on every object with an unflinching objectivity. The trash-strewn streets of Naples are just as vivid as the fancy restaurants in Florence; the inner lives of Ferrante’s two female protagonists are as urgently real as the very different external worlds through which they move.