Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (L’amica geniale #3)
By: Elena Ferrante
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
In this third Neapolitan novel, Elena and Lila, the two girls whom readers first met in My Brilliant Friend, have become women. Lila married at sixteen and has a young son; she has left her husband and the comforts of her marriage brought and now works as a common laborer. Elena has left the neighborhood, earned her college degree, and published a successful novel, all of which has opened the doors to a world of learned interlocutors and richly furnished salons. Both women have attempted are pushing against the walls of a prison that would have seem them living a life of mystery, ignorance and submission. They are afloat on the great sea of opportunities that opened up during the nineteen-seventies. Yet they are still very much bound to see each other by a strong, unbreakable bond.
And here we are, the third novel in her Neapolitan quartet. Having zipped through the first two books in the series within a day, it seemed I did not slow down with the third book, even though the fourth one was on pre-order and wouldn’t be released until September (now). Nonetheless I had to find out what happened next in Elena and Lila’s story. May contain spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t read the previous installments!
While I still devoured this book in the day, yikes, my reception to it is rather lukewarm, which is weird considering the characters are around my age at this point in the story.
Where to begin? The socio-political rumblings that have been peeking in in the first two novels have finally come to a head in this novel. While I do have a general understanding of the hot mess that is Italian politics during this period, its immediacy in this novel ended up boring me rather than intriguing me. It felt all a bit heavy-handed and drew me away from the characters, despite of the fact that many of them–Nino, Pasquale, Nadia (God, I grew to be increasingly annoyed with her in this book), etc.–are politically-motivated and inclined. The burgeoning of the sexual revolution also informed the characters and provided a new angle for many of the female characters in this novel as they struggled to redefine themselves in the new situations they found themselves.
Once again the successes and failures, the ups and downs continue in Lila and Elena’s lives; when one is doing well, the other is not in a good situation, and vice versa. Lila weaves in and out of the story, but this time the focus is a lot on Elena, which I didn’t mind as Lila’s story tends to exhaust me, despite of how interesting and complex it can be. But while I continue to empathise with Elena as she struggled to define herself apart from others, namely Lila, a) it’s clear that her friendship with Lila is a little too parasitic and that Elena needs some serious time apart from her, not some temporary reprieve; her husband wasn’t wrong to define Lila as she was that time they went to Napoli to see Elena’s sister, and b) OMG her decisions towards the end of the book
The writing and the insight was still gorgeous and still Ferrante in the way it portrays women and their experiences against the violence of the times, the repression, the lack of improvement or opportunity, with their lives and with themselves. But in one sense Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay wasn’t as gripping as the previous books for me, not to mention in retrospect the characters seem to be locked in a continuous cycle of the issues that plagued them in the previous novels. Sure, they’re not at middle age yet, but they didn’t seem to make any progress with themselves: Lila has embraced the violence of their childhood neighbourhood, plunging head-on and still relying on Elena to be the reasonable one, while Elena hasn’t fully found her identity that’s defined by her own terms and not by her lovers or spouse. Additionally, their relationship continues on the tenuous cycle of closeness and distance with no resolution or new-found harmony.
I’m still looking forward to reading the last book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, and how the later years connects back to the prologue from My Brilliant Friend, but otherwise Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay was my least favourite of the three books.