Set from 1968 through the late 70s, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay opens with a flash-forward to 2005. Elena Greco’s gone back to the rione, her old Naples neighborhood, to visit Lila Cerullo, her lifelong friend, alter ego, and frequent nemesis. Out for a walk the two women are drawn to a crowd gathered by the church, where they discover Gigliola, a childhood friend, lying dead in a flowerbed. This is one of the many “horrible things” that have happened in the untold amount of time since Elena last saw Lila. But we won’t read about those things just yet—not in this book. At the end of the visit Lila tells Elena that if she, Elena, plans to write about her or Gigliola or anyone else in the rione, she should just forget it, because they don’t deserve it, she and Gigliola don’t deserve anything, they should all just disappear. Furthermore, if Elena dares write about Lila, Lila will find Elena’s computer and erase all her files.
So once again Ferrante pulls us into her narrative with a shocking incident and the recitation of a pact renegotiated already several times: We started out as novelists but I (Lila) no longer write so you (Elena) must continue to do so for both of us. But don’t you dare write about me. In the first two books of this series the doppelganger-writer trope was a powerful device, especially in Book 2 where it brought dimension to the fractious, often tedious adolescent friendship of Elena and Lila. I’d been expecting that in Book 3, where as adult women they must deal with marriage, children, and work, in a time of intense political turmoil, there’d be some serious grappling. There is—but only when Lila’s in the story. Unfortunately, whenever Lila’s missing, so is the book’s heat.
Book 3 easily falls into three parts. In the first and most engaging, the action surrounds Lila in her job at a sausage factory in the Naples periphery, where working conditions are grisly and sexual harassment rampant. Not to mention that the factory owner—an old friend from summer days in Ischia—is in alliance with a far-right faction and indebted to loan-shark Michele Solara. Lila’s drawn unwillingly into a student-worker alliance, and she authors an eloquent manifesto-cum-list of grievances which becomes the basis of an article Elena then writes for L’Unita, the Communist Party newspaper. At the same time, Lila suffers a nervous breakdown of sorts, and Elena helps pull her through it.
In the second part the focus shifts to Florence, where Elena marries Pietro, a self-centered classics professor, and they start a family. Italian factories, streets and universities are teeming with dissent and repression. Against a background of bombings, kidnappings, and battles between student-worker alliances and right-wing factions, Elena and Pietro lead an isolated life, he consumed with his teaching and writing, she with raising two small girls. Elena now has precious little time to write, and the focus of this book shifts to that dilemma: What will become of her if she’s unable to write because of all her domestic demands? After she’s worked so hard to pull herself out of the rione, and has earned her degree, and published her first novel? Now that she’s married to a self-centered pedant who shows no respect for her mind or her work? Living in a city where she has no friends?
The third part begins when Nino Sarratore, the secret love of Elena’s life, appears in Florence as a visiting professor from Naples. Lila reappears a few times in this section, in her new guise as programmer for a database firm owned by the nefarious Michele Solara, but these appearances are fleeting.
The narrative in this volume, as in the second, involves more telling than showing—first this happened, then that, then this—often making for a tiresome read. Incidents are plentiful but few are memorable. Whenever the narrative develops into a full scene, however, especially those scenes set in and about Naples, all that changes and the writing becomes positively cinematic. As when Lila goes missing one evening and returns, traumatized, and tells Elena her story of abuse and violence in the sausage factory, including her confrontation with Bruno Soccavo, the factory owner, and Michele Solara. Or when Elena hosts her erstwhile friend Pasquale, who arrives at her Florence apartment unannounced and disheveled, growling about her bourgeois lifestyle. Or when Elena brings Pietro home for the first time to visit her family: How he’s a fountain of facts, knowing more about Naples than Elena, but incapable of reading the people around him, so that when the Neapolitans on the street stare at his big head of hair he’s oblivious; so that when he takes her family out to dinner and is ridiculed by a few students at a table across the way, he’s again oblivious, and when Elena’s brothers go over and start delivering punches, he has no idea why—maybe everyone acts this way in restaurants in Naples? They walk over to the other tables and start fights?
The timeframe of this book is the Anni di Piombo, the Years of Lead, and I’d hoped that the politics of the period would be more integrated with Elena’s blossoming. It doesn’t happen quite that way. Elena writes news articles about strikes, police surveillance, and disruptions at universities not because she’s politically engaged but because they’re something to write about, they’ll prove to her friends and in-laws that she’s knowledgeable and politically correct: “The rest was a flurry of air, an immaterial wave of images and sounds that, whether disastrous or beneficial, gave me material for my work, it threatened or it passed over, so that I could put it into magic words inside a story, an article, a speech, making sure that nothing was out of line and that every concept would be pleasing to the Airotas, to the publishing house, to Nino who for sure was reading it somewhere . . . and to Lila, who would have to finally say: Look, we were unfair to Elena, she’s on our side, look at these things she’s writing.” Elena’s engagement, such as it is, and her references to assassinations and bombings function primarily as background to the central story of her learning to believe and trust in herself. Is her situation as an educated and talented woman, now isolated as a wife and mother, and condescended to by her husband, not worthy of sympathy? Indeed, it is. Is it tiresome to read about her frustrations, her insecurities, and her lack of clarity? Indeed, it is.
Does Elena ever make a move on her own? At times. She wants to start birth control before her marriage, so as to not put her writing career at risk, but her husband and her doctor are against it, and so she doesn’t start on the pill until after her second child. She becomes a member of a women’s consciousness group. She writes a second book, a long essay about female characters as created by male writers (DeFoe, Flaubert, Tolstoy) and how their work functions as a retelling of the Adam and Eve story. I’m still not clear on what exactly the reader is supposed to take away from this. A reference—wink, wink—to the controversy surrounding the identity of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante?* I found this account somewhat garbled and the ideas not at all new, even considering that Elena would have been writing in the heady feminism of the 70s: Simone de Beauvoir did a similar analysis of five male authors in 1949, in a chapter of The Second Sex. In fact, whenever Elena refers to this other writing—the essay on the Holy Spirit in Book 2, or her first novel, or her newspaper articles—she simply refers to them, she doesn’t fully discuss them, and therefore the reader fails to learn exactly how Elena thinks or who, at heart, she really is. Which is a weird situation for a series that’s partly about a writer struggling to affirm her identity as a writer. Unless, that is, we’re supposed to regard the products of Elena’s writing as ghost texts, say, illusive meta-texts, texts that in themselves amount to little or nothing when set beside whatever it is that Lila’s doing. Or writing. After all, Elena started to write the tetralogy I am now reading when Lila disappeared, precisely because Lila disappeared. Even though we’ve read that Elena threw Lila’s journals into the Arno, and that Lila burnt the novel she wrote as a young girl, Lila’s life remains the ur-text of this tetralogy. Even though Lila protests in Book 3 that she hasn’t read a book in years, we’d be foolish to think she isn’t still writing something, somewhere. Writing something that she destroyed before she disappeared without a trace, back in Book 1, as her son says, disappeared without leaving so much as a scrap. If that’s the strategy, that Elena’s texts aren’t meant to have a weight equal to that of Lila’s texts, then something else about Elena needs weight if her character is to hold our interest.
Finally, at the end of the book, Elena takes a big step on her own behalf, but the manner of her doing so is bizarre. Up until then she’s embodied all the virtues of a devoted mother. She speaks about her daughters with great love if not adoration. She showers them with attention, teaches them to read before they enter school, buys them the prettiest clothes. That people compliment her on her daughters’ intelligence and model behavior is a great source of pride. But then she makes a life-altering decision and executes it in a way that’s abrupt and altogether unnecessary. And that will no doubt affect her daughters negatively. Why? Is this Ferrante’s way of turning the selfless motherhood trope on its head? The soap-opera pacing that plagues this book is here capped by a ridiculous chick-lit ending.
So there it is. I was disappointed in this book. I will certainly finish the series—the Italian edition of Book 4 sits here on my desk (the English translation will come out in November)—but I won’t open it just yet. I need another writer’s voice in my head for awhile. And when I do open Book 4, I’ll be looking for Lila.
* See Rebecca Falkoff’s essay To Translate is to Betray: On the Elena Ferrante Phenomenon in Italy and the US at Public Books