Sunday 23 April 2023

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

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As Elena prepares to marry a University professor and move with him to Florence, she returns to Naples where her recent book is the talk of the town. Lila is working in a sausage factory where conditions are far from ideal, teaching her son to read, and studying with her partner at night. Their lives feel alien to each other and there is resentment and regret. Whenever they talk there is an undercurrent of tension. It is rare for them to reveal all to each other and they cling to and abandon each other as their circumstances change. Elena is afraid something will happen which will prevent her from escaping the life Lila is still living, who is being worn down by it, beginning to doubt her own abilities which are being quashed by lack of opportunity and the lack of time to do anything but work hard to keep her family afloat. For Elena, her attempts to create a new life for herself make her distant with her family and she becomes unaware of what is happening in their lives.

She struggles with the reception of her book, allowing reviews to colour her own opinion of it, swinging with every contradictory opinion aired. Eventually, she realises the real challenge is everyone from her old life having read it and judged it to be vulgar. When she writes a second novel and shares it with her mother-in-law and editor she is disheartened to find that they consider it unpublishable. The content being based around her experiences it is not just a rejection of her work but of her and the past which she is forever trying to escape.

Her relationship with Pietro is not a supportive one. He leaves her to manage their small children and their home, roles which she feels make her lose her sense of self and evaporate her creativity. She doesn’t share her writing with him, and when Nino reappears in their lives he points out that her lack of output has a lot to do with Pietro not taking on any of the burden of caring for the family. He prioritises his own work and does not seem to consider that Elena also needs mental space and time to achieve her potential.

Lila’s relationship with Enzo has some differences. She works until she is exhausted but Enzo is proud of her and treats her like an intellectual equal, realising that they need to work together to achieve their goals. Ultimately, they become successful and forge a new way of life for themselves. Earlier in the novel, she began to feel that her efforts were futile when seeing the grandson of her former teacher exceed her own child’s abilities in less time. ‘What a useless struggle to make Gennaro become smart. The child was already losing, he was being pulled back and she couldn’t hold on to him.’ This heartbreaking passage reveals the deep-seated advantage that privilege provides from a young age, and highlights how hard both Elena and Lila have to work to rise above the disadvantage they were dealt.

This third instalment is just as powerful as those which came before. We see some new, not always pleasant, aspects of Elena’s character and witness the world around them shift with civil unrest, making even the university halls feel unsafe. The friendship between Lila and Elena remains difficult, competitive, and at times toxic. It is sad to see them feel compelled to compete when they would be far stronger supporting each other. There is far more connecting them than separating them but they can’t seem to get past feelings of hurt and judgment to open up to each other and accept help. This is a compelling novel that considers a broad sweep of gender and social issues and leaves you desperate to dive into the fourth and final book, while simultaneously not wanting your time with these characters to end. 

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