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Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014)

by Elena Ferrante

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Neapolitan Novels (3)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,169805,530 (4.19)103
Since the publication of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante's fame as one of our most compelling, insightful, and stylish contemporary authors has grown enormously. She has gained admirers among authors--Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Strout, Claire Messud, to name a few--and critics--James Wood, John Freeman, Eugenia Williamson, for example. But her most resounding success has undoubtedly been with readers, who have discovered in Ferrante a writer who speaks with great power and beauty of the mysteries of belonging, human relationships, love, family, and friendship. 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 are pushing against the walls of a prison that would have seen 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.… (more)
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English (61)  Italian (5)  German (5)  Dutch (2)  Swedish (2)  Spanish (2)  French (2)  Catalan (1)  All languages (80)
Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
A long journey but this one certainly ends with a bang. Reading about being a woman in 60's-70's Italy and Lena's attempt at feminist consciousness raising feels very consistent with the events of 2017 in the US.
It has me thinking about a related tangent: I would love to see childcare transformed into a profession that had a real career track. It would require education and compensation in line with its value, which is deep - the nurturing and preparation of the next generations. This is hidden work that has been done by women for free forever. That change would transform women's lives.
At any rate I am looking forward to the next book. ( )
  Je9 | Aug 10, 2021 |
I did not love this book as much as the other two. It seemed somewhat predictable which was annoying. The friends seemed to have lost their selves in this book. Hopefully it ends on a high note in book 4. ( )
  shazjhb | Jul 12, 2021 |
Three books down. One more to go. No less fascinated by Elena and Lila than I was in the beginning. I'm not too optimistic about Elena's long-term prospects for happiness with the major life choice she makes at the end of this one, but am eager to find out how Ferrante wraps up the story. ( )
  CaitlinMcC | Jul 11, 2021 |
I'll be honest: I didn't finish it. I liked the first two of her Neapolitan series a lot, and stuck with this one as long as I could. But finally I decided I didn't want to be around these people any more. I got tired of them, of their miseries and cruelties. The women are trapped, the men (well, almost all of them) are boors or thugs. Absolutely no one loves anyone in any kind of generous, kind way: it's all about desire and possession and subjugation. The sex ranges from just joyless to brutal. The boy-now-man that the narrator Elena has been mooning over for two and a half volumes and many years is a jerk, so even if she gets together with him, I won't like it. The mothers can barely even stand their own kids. The complexity has ceased to be personal, emotional, or developmental... it's all just plot now, with the same cast going through the same wringer. Tedious. ( )
  JulieStielstra | May 17, 2021 |
Neapolitan Novels volume 3 is not any less gripping then the preceding two volumes, even if it starts off a bit slower than volume 2. Elena's steadily intensifying domestic drama easily overcomes a weak self-referential subplot about the critical reception of the novel she wrote in the last book, while Lila's struggles with the fallout of her own decisions become even more interesting when set against the labor militancy of the time. While both characters live in much larger worlds than they did as children, and desperately seek to widen their horizons and pursue their own dreams, they still find themselves constrained by their own choices and their own personal limitations. It's remarkable how much Ferrante makes you sympathize with people making truly terrible decisions out of short-term blindness, but I think most readers will be slapping their foreheads in frustration by the end of this one, as Elena's momentous decision at the book's climax really makes you wonder if Voltaire's line of "to know all is to forgive all" is actually true.

Elena's scenes in the beginning were not very interesting, particularly the parts where she dealt with critical reactions to her first novel. It's usually dull when authors try to respond to their critics from within their works, and though Ferrante never descends to the level of Michael Crichton, who wrote one of his critics into a novel as a child molestor, it's hard not to be bored as her stand-in ponders on how people just don't understand her. I don't doubt that it's what Ferrante actually felt about reading criticism of her pre-Neapolitan Novels works, and I don't doubt that female authors in the 1960s faced similar professional challenges, especially for writing "scandalous" books with sex scenes in them, but I personally prefer authors to just write their damn books and let critics battle it out later. It's doubly frustrating, since Ferrante even has Elena think about the need to define her own life, in the context of feminist criticism of the portrayal of women in Moll Flanders, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and so on. I think the key thing is to write what you feel, because that can't be faked, and you then don't need to worry about authenticity. Her scenes do get much better later on, especially when she returns to Naples and deals with her inability to remove the Mafia-like tentacles of the Solaras from her life. Her own sister marries a Solara, which comes as a real shock to her, but Lila as usual is more perceptive:

"May I point out something? You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it's all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another. I don't do anything truthfully anymore, Lenù. And I've learned to pay attention to things. Only idiots believe that they happen unexpectedly."

Lila's scenes were all quite good. I don't know if Ferrante has ever read Upton Sinclair, but the way that Lila deals with the grimness of her sausage factory job made for a good companion/update to The Jungle. The political parts of the book are fairly true to real life, so if you're familiar with the creation of the Italian regions in 1970 or have read Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work there is much to compare to here. But all of that stuff is less interesting than how Lila sees it - here she's working with Bruno, the kid who was so much fun in that long-ago summer of romance in Ischia, who could have helped her out of her own difficulties but is just a loutish boss. And yet rather than turn trustingly to the labor movement, à la Jurgis Rudkus, Lila has to be coaxed kicking and screaming into fighting against her own exploitation. Just like in real life, where people are very suspicious of movements or isms. And yet even though she's become bitter, or had her existing bitterness exposed to the world, her new tenderness toward Enzo after she leaves the factory for computer work is touching. Just the two of them and her son, at relative peace in their own little corner of the world, slowly bringing Italy into the modern era of automation.

Elena's part to play in the Class Struggle is somewhat different, as befits her different station in life. Her marriage to the educated, intelligent, well-connected Pietro, while on paper a perfect match, fills her with ambivalence even as she tries to do her part and write the political pieces she's so praised for. Pietro is not a very sympathetic character, in fact he comes off as kind of a jerk until the later parts, but one thing this series is very good at is making you aware of how very different your life looks to other people; you can edit life to your heart's content in your own diary, but not anyone else's. Her struggles to write, and her complicated feelings about her gift, appeal strongly to anyone who has creative struggles of their own. Her relationship to Lila also just keeps getting more complicated somehow. They're closer than ever in some ways, as Elena even helps raise Lila's son Gennaro, but she's still forced to use that coded language to discuss what's really important to her:

"I knew clearly, now, that our friendship was possible only if we controlled our tongues. For example, I couldn't confess to her that a dark part of me feared that she was casting an evil spell on me from afar, that that part still hoped that she was really sick and would die. For example, she couldn't tell me the real reasons that motivated the rough, often offensive, tone in which she treated me. So we confined ourselves to talking about Gennaro, who was one of the smartest children in the elementary school, about Dede, who already knew how to read, and we did it like two mothers doing the normal boasting of mothers. Or I mentioned my attempt to write, but without making a big deal of it, I said only: I'm working, it's not easy, being pregnant makes me tired. Or I tried to find out if Michele was still hanging around her, to somehow capture her and keep her. Or, sometimes, I would ask if she liked certain movie or television actors, and urge her to tell me if men unlike Enzo attracted her, and perhaps confide to her that it happened to me, too, that I was attracted to men unlike Pietro. But this last subject didn't seem to interest her."

And on that last point, get ready for a lot of Nino, because he dominates this volume from beginning to end. I don't know if this is supposed to be a commentary on how you shouldn't let your fantasies of certain people cloud your rational judgment, but from his appearance at the book signing at the start of the book to the closing scene of him and Elena flying off an a plane, he's like a comet that orbits back in to disrupt the two girls' lives every once in a while. Remember how Nino loved and left Lila? He's a compulsive womanizer, the perfect vehicle for unhappy women to project their own dissatisfaction onto, and it's never a question of if Lila will leave Pietro for Nino, but when, even though it's clearly doomed and you wonder how such an articulate, intelligent person could be so stupid.

Is there such a thing as the definitive novel of adultery? Tolstoy's famous line in Anna Karenina that "happy families are all alike" seems inverted here, as everyone's unhappy life takes similar paths of disillusionment. I wouldn't say that the Neapolitan Novels fully explores every possible dimension of adultery, only that Ferrante makes Elena's struggles with unhappiness, emptiness, and unfulfillment very real and relatable. Do you want someone who will challenge you and change you, or someone who who loves you just as you are? How do you know when a decision is right for you? Can you always trust your own feelings, especially ones that feel "so right"? Elena experiences the passion of finding someone new to love, the jealousy of knowing that Nino had done this before, the rage of not being able to fully trust someone willing to throw their marriage away, the guilt of knowing she did the same to her own marriage, the self-righteousness of leaving someone she doesn't love, the sadness of seeing the break's effects on her children.

The book ends with her flying off with Nino. This can't end well, but I can't stop reading. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
...
Writing about the Brilliant Friend books has been one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever done. When I began, I thought I felt this way because I loved them so much and didn’t know where to start with all my praising. Then I had to fight a deep desire not to mention the things I most liked in the novels so I could keep them to myself. Now my view of the matter is that somehow Ferrante so thoroughly succeeds in her aim of seizing at “the evasive thing” that she has stirred up something from the depths of her mind that touches and spreads through mine.

It has to do, presumably, with femininity, with having been a girl who loved reading and was supposed to know that you have to let the boys keep winning at math. It has to do too with the less gendered but even more bodily experience of living in and through a mind. And it has to do, profoundly, with living in a mind and being touched by another one: delighted, exasperated, confused, envious, sorrowful, appalled. As the years go by, the women in these novels allow the holes in their friendship to spread, yet Elena feels the presence of Lila constantly, an almost physical pressure, a disturbance in the air. Telling her own story, she thinks, is easy enough: “the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport.” But involving Lila, “the belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly . . . The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there. Her things end up among mine.”

“May I point out something?” Lila says to Elena in one of the women’s scarce, increasingly ill-tempered phone conversations in the Seventies. “You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another.”

This, in a nutshell, is Lila’s problem, perhaps her tragedy. She thinks so fast and with such ferocious rigor; she sees connections and discerns so many fine distinctions; she’s impossible and overwhelming — “too much for anyone” and, most of all, for herself. But Elena keeps thinking about her, putting her on the page. Great novels are intelligent far beyond the powers of any character or writer or individual reader, as are great friendships, in their way. These wonderful books sit at the heart of that mystery, with the warmth and power of both.
added by aileverte | editHarper's, Jenny Turner (pay site) (Oct 1, 2014)
 

» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elena Ferranteprimary authorall editionscalculated
Goldstein, AnnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Huber, HillaryNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Laake, Marieke vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Ho visto Lila per l'ultima volta cinque anni fa, nell'inverno del 2005.
I saw Lila for the last time five years ago, in the winter of 2005.
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Since the publication of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante's fame as one of our most compelling, insightful, and stylish contemporary authors has grown enormously. She has gained admirers among authors--Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Strout, Claire Messud, to name a few--and critics--James Wood, John Freeman, Eugenia Williamson, for example. But her most resounding success has undoubtedly been with readers, who have discovered in Ferrante a writer who speaks with great power and beauty of the mysteries of belonging, human relationships, love, family, and friendship. 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 are pushing against the walls of a prison that would have seen 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.

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