This is the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples.
It follows on from Book One, My Brilliant Friend and Book Two, The Story of a New Name (click on the titles to read earlier reviews).
Lila has married, had a child, reformed her husband’s business, strayed and finally separated from her husband and moved to another area outside the neighbourhood to live with Enzo, a childhood friend. She gets a job in a sausage factory, working under oppressive conditions that attract the interest of social activists and harsh threats from the ‘fascists’.
“Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”
In Pisa, Elena has remoulded herself, no longer referring or comparing herself to Lila. She observes how people from her type of neighbourhood and class are perceived outside it, among the bourgeois, those raised within the milieu of intellectuals and achievers, those with access to money, social connections, many of whom are gifted with a presence she can only dream of. Elena finishes her university studies and becomes engaged to Pietro, who was raised within that other world; coming from a well-known academic family, he too will become a university professor, teaching and writing academic works like his father.
As she is concluding her studies, Elena writes a fictional story drawn from aspects of her past, though never admitting it is anything but fiction. She gifts the story to Pietro on an impulse, hoping he will read it. He passes the manuscript to his well-connected mother Adele, thus Elena treads the path laid in front of her, towards becoming an author. Adele introduces her to contacts that will result in her first book being published, establishing her career as a writer.
“I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including – I said emphatically – what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.”
Though Elena does her best to avoid it, Pietro finally meets her family and though he insists on a civil ceremony for their marriage, a decision that stuns and terribly disappoints her mother, he wishes to do the traditional thing by asking her father for her hand. Her father is calm and accepting, however her mother’s thoughts insist on an airing and she lectures the young professor unabashedly.
“When at last she was silent, he said that he knew very well how precious I was and that he was grateful to her for having brought me up as I was.”
Through marriage, Elena succeeds in elevating herself above her roots, though finds herself stranded in not quite belonging to either her future role or her past. They are like roles she assumes outside herself, taking care not to stand out when she returns to the neighbourhood and paying attention to how she should behave in her new role as the wife of a professor.
“As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.”
However, marrying the young professor, writing the story that turns into a successful novel, moving to Florence and becoming a mother leave her little time to play any other role than that of housewife.
Lila leaves the neighbourhood, escaping her marriage and taking on a job in a sausage factory owned by a friend of Nino Sarratore, whom the girls met one summer. Her job leaves her little time to spend with her son. Unwillingly, she becomes connected with worker’s rights activists and discovers the dirty arm of the neighbourhood loan sharks who are leaning on her employer, while continuing to try to lure her back into their realm.
Lila and Elena’s worlds drift further apart and although they are aware of the need to share with the other, they each possess the instinct to soldier on without admitting their struggle or need for support or encouragement. Elena will receive both her mother-in-law and her mother at different times so that she can write and Lila will return to the neighbourhood to ease her difficulties. Both have opportunities within their reach, yet both are susceptible to self-destruction.
“Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn’t have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength didn’t have the desire, didn’t see the use.”
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a compelling story of the lives of two women and those around them, and a penetrative observation on the creation and consequence of decisions women make, how they live with those decisions and the often destructive way they bring about change. It narrates a journey of moving away from one’s origins and the sacrifice the attainment of that desire requires.
Elena leaves her past and a life she didn’t want, behind her, however in attaining a new life, she loses sight of who she really is and what drives her. She is just coming to the point of realising that when her world spins out of control. And thankfully for us all the fourth book is being translated. I expect the wheel may come full circle.
Note: It has been announced that My Brilliant Friend will be made into a television series in Italy. The author/screenwriter Francesco Piccolo, winner of the esteemed Italian literary Strega Prize 2014 (with his bittersweet memoir of life on the Italian Left, ‘Il desiderio di essere come tutti’ (The Desire To Be Like Everyone) will work on the screenplay.
Next Book in the Series: The Story of the Lost Child