If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that there’s been a huge outbreak of #ferrantefever here at Turnaround HQ. We’ve been completely absorbed in the world of Elena and Lila for months. We’ve talked about it relentlessly, analysed, argued and swooned over what is, as the Sunday Times put it, “The publishing story of the decade.”
If you’ve been struck down by this same literary fever, you’ll know that by the time you reach the third book in the quartet, you’re so all-consumed by the lives of these characters that doing simple things like buying milk or going down the pub feel oddly unreal. You’re in Naples instead. You’re watching lives unfold with an intensity more tangible than real life. And whatever happens you CAN’T. STOP. READING.
By the time you finish The Story of a New Name, the second book, and have gasped at its ending (Ferrante is VERY good at endings), there is nowhere to go except into the depths of book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
This is the point we’re all at here at Turnaround. We’ve offered up our thoughts on each book so far. And with LESS THAN A MONTH to go before the release of the fourth and final book, The Story of the Lost Child, we’re back to tell you what we thought of book three.
I have never read anything so ravenously as Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
It is incredibly hard to condense my thoughts and feelings about this instalment of the series, not only because it deals with the most grown up themes thus far (Elena’s career, marriage, motherhood and widening interest in feminism), but also because the characters are living in 1968-1976 Italy, in which revolutionary fanaticism and fascism have reached a breaking point. The overall consensus in the office is that tooooooooooooo much is happening here!
In spite of that, it in some ways seems less exciting than the first two novels, as it focusses on the steady Elena more so than the hot-blooded Lila, who has undeniably been the star up to this point. Suddenly Lenu’s life is more exciting and more interesting, at least at first. Where Lila does feature, and even when she is embroiled within a battle between workers and fascists in the factory where she works, her youth and volatility have been dulled somewhat through years of poverty, hard work and motherhood. She lacks the resourcefulness and the venom that I have grown to love about her – until the end, in an evocative passage which I shan’t spoil!
This point aside, this is the novel that spoke to me most out of the three. Throughout the series, I have identified with Lenu far more than Lila. I’m currently very close to the age that Lenu is in this book, and she was living out many of my greatest fears – unhappy marriage (thankfully mine isn’t!) and having children and, most of all, that one is stuck in a futile scenario and that there could be more out there, just out of reach… I felt like this book was in part written with me in mind; obviously it wasn’t!
Perhaps that’s what is so wonderful about this series: Ferrante’s haunting storytelling ultimately speaks to all women – and indeed to a great deal of men, who aren’t immune to these anxieties – and the doubts they have about their identities, their relationships, their stations in life, the oppressions that take place around them and the worry that there could always be something more ahead.
I think it’s worth mentioning that the ending of the novel actually elicited a scream from me. READ IT. NOW.
Elena Ferrante opens up Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay with Elena (the fictional one) reflecting on the span of the neighbourhood. Despite having appeared to have climbed the middle-class ladder rather effectively – moving on to reside in Florence with her university professor spouse, successful debut novel, and two healthy children – this series and its narrator can never escape its roots. Writing from the 2000s, after the events of the Neapolitan novels, she admits that the neighbourhood had always been bigger than that run-down suburb she and Lila grew up in; that its power actually spread insidiously across Italy, across Europe, across Elena’s entire world, and we soon begin to see Ferrante’s drama played out across a much wider, international stage.
This widening of scope and readjusting of the lens of Ferrante’s fiction is what impressed me the most in Book Two. While I’d followed the personal, romantic and political lives of Elena and Lila in raptures, I slowly found myself embroiled in the radical and often violent struggles of those at the bottom of the class system, of the student population and their young leaders, and of groups of women meeting in sitting rooms to dissect their existence in a thoroughly woman-hating society.
The stakes are raised with this book, without Ferrante ever making any grand, obvious leap towards political pedantry – her characters sometimes preach, that’s true, but the clash of personalities, political positions, and inescapable societal rankings keep the reader on their feet. Scenes featuring some of the more engaged characters are properly shocking, and provide great contrast to the slowly deprecating familial drama of the Airotas. Elena also makes a great narrator of these anomalies; you really feel her own discomfort when Nadia and Pasquale toddle off to have sex in her bathtub.
Ferrante’s dedication to the working class is deeply satisfying. No matter how much delight you take in Elena’s cultural and intellectual strides, those figures from her childhood always take the spotlight.
Special shout-out to Ferrante’s continually dazzling beginnings and endings – my very favourite kind of book is the one that, upon finishing, you can’t help but go back and read over the first chapter. She achieves this every time, and the series flows seamlessly because of that. Also adored Enzo’s success at IBM, and the Mad Men-esque ending that sees Elena positively weirded out by her first aeroplane flight.
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena and Lila have grown into fully-fledged adults. They’ve left the world of Ischia behind them and are living in two different cities, leading very different lives.
There’s a part of the book that made me want to hop on a Vespa, scoot round to Elena’s house, and save her from the absolute mundanity of married life. After everything she’d accomplished up until this point, it was pretty wretched to watch her trapped in domesticity. Where is the strong-willed (if under-confident) Elena who put herself through University and wrote a bestselling novel – one with a progressive dirty scene? Who is this person trapped in a house with kids, a husband who is always working, and a routine of housework and shitty sex. NO! This is not her! It was hard to watch her lose everything she’d worked for and end up not really liking herself; maybe that’s why I couldn’t actually put the book down; I was waiting to see how she’d get the hell out.
Although the narrative turns decidedly more towards Elena in this third book, Lila is still there. Her presence is felt through whatever Elena does. That’s part of the magic; Ferrante has wound the two together so tightly you can’t read one without sensing the other. I’m back to liking Lila. She’s escaped that brute Stefano and is working hard for herself, her son and Enzo, albeit in a sausage factory that ends up making her both physically and mentally ill. Her curiosity and urge to learn comes back to her in waves. She’s getting braver and becoming more independent.
And while these two women are trying to get along with their lives – and maybe even actually enjoy life – the political tension in Italy is heating up tenfold. There are elements of the book that read like the best kind of political thriller. Every character who we’ve watched grow up is in some way involved. Lila and Elena getting involved more heavily with the beginnings of a feminist movement is a real highlight of the book, a bit of a release amongst the oppression.
As soon as I started the book, it was full-steam ahead. It really is all-consuming. And as it steers towards its ending, there is only the worry that you have to wait a while before the final book is released. AND THAT ENDING!
Last time, when writing about The Story of A New Name, I focused on Elena Ferrante’s evocations of place – particularly during the book’s centrepiece on Ischia. In the same spirit of approaching the Neapolitan novels from a slightly different angle, this time I’m going to briefly examine the idea of progress in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
In this third novel, Elena and Lila are separated; their lives only briefly intersect (although when they do, it is often with shattering consequences). Their lives have both moved forward in different and arguably unexpected ways, and this physical separation seems to be an indicator or how far they have grown apart.
Yet there is something inescapable – for Elena, at least, as Lila’s thoughts still remain tantalisingly obscure – about the Naples neighbourhood she grew up in. It regularly informs her writing and her thoughts, even as she is ostensibly ‘progressing’ through life, moving further away from her roots. Lila’s progress is blunted with almost chilling abruptness in this instalment, yet there are still elements of her lifestyle that Elena finds beguiling. It is the same nagging question that has permeated the books so far – are we ever happy with our own lives, with our own achievements? Or are we destined to be dissatisfied, no matter what we gain from life?
In addition, and especially in Those Who Leave, Ferrante consistently asks – what do we mean by ‘progress’? Does it mean moving further away from your beginnings, your family? Or is there something more subtle at work? Indeed, can those same questions be applied to a whole society? As Italy moves through a period of gigantic political and social change, its own progress increasingly comes under scrutiny in these later novels. Happily for the reader, Ferrante is as interested in the process of finding answers as she is in the questions themselves; it is a joy to see the workings of her mind through these characters. As Elena boards a plane for the first time at the end of Those Who Leave, we deeply feel her own tremblings, her own uncertainties about which kind of progress she is destined to make. Like the previous two books, this is stirring, life-affirming writing. You’re hardly likely to need convincing at this stage, but the Neapolitan novels are works to treasure; simply one of the greatest sequences of fiction you are ever likely to come across.