Julie Christine's Reviews > Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2015, contemporary-fiction, italy-theme-setting, read-2015

”Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.” ~Lila Cerullo

Mount Vesuvius simmers on the edges of Naples, a dragon in slumber, a metaphor for the rumbling, teeming city that erupts in violence without warning. The view of the volcano's hulking presence, seen through the windows of an upscale apartment, serves as proof that one has risen above the squalor of “the neighborhood” to arrive in the loftier heights. But no amount of money or education can sand away the rough resentments of those raised to fight for every scrap of power.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels quartet, strikes me as the most intimate of the books. For it is here that Elena Greco turns from her past, staying away Naples for years at a time, closing the door on the embarrassment of her family and the simmering envy of her best friend, Lila Cerullo. We see more of Elena’s internal life than we’ve seen in the previous books as we follow her into marriage and motherhood. Elena Ferrante has admitted that much of her Neapolitan Novels is autobiographical and in Elena Greco we realize the irony of a young writer surrounded by profound social change, struggling to absorb and understand it, aching to write about it, yet confounded by her sexual awakening and domestic demands. She has defied the preordained path of marriage, children, poverty and drudgery by leaving Naples, completing university and becoming a celebrated author, yet now finds herself in exactly the place she was certain she’d escaped: the nursery, the kitchen, losing her singularity in the demands of husband and babies.

This novel is also the most political of Ferrante’s extraordinary bildungsroman. Opening against the backdrop of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, and carrying into the 1970s Vietnam War protest movement, the clashes in Italy between the communists and neo-fascists, Baader-Meinhof and the rise of the Red Brigade, feminism and the sexual revolution, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay shows the social awakening of a nation through the intelligent but naïve eyes of Elena.

“The Personal is Political,” a phrase coined by feminist Carol Hanisch in 1970, is brought to narrative life by Ferrante’s women. Elena's first novel is selling well and she is infused with a sense of her own relevance. Yet, just as she finds her voice and her star rises, she marries Pietro Airota, the son of her literary champion Adele, and settles in Florence. Pietro, a seemingly liberal and enlightened university professor, balks when Elena expresses her desire not to have children right away; she is a writer and needs the time to continue learning and exploring her craft. But the Pill is not yet legal and Pietro has married her with far different expectations. The birth of two daughters in the first years of her marriage stultifies Elena’s creative intentions and her literary star dims and fades out.

Miles and lifetimes away, where we left her at the end of The Story With A New Name, Lila has become as physically frail as a branch stripped bare. She lives a platonic life with Enzo, after first fleeing her marriage to abusive Stefano and then her lover, the enigmatic Nino, raising her son and grinding through her days at a sausage factory. While Elena, consumed by motherhood, barely glances at the daily newspaper headlines, Lila is at the frontlines of the labor movement, agitating workers by standing up to the abuse and advances of her employer.

This is a novel of fierce and brutal love, of rivalry in marriage, in friendship, in national pride. But at its heart, the Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the story of friendship, of the violence we do to those we love the most. Elena and Lila collide and spin away, only to orbit again into each other’s hearts. A phone call after months or years apart picks up their emotional conversation where it last left off, mercurial Lila prodding Elena to become the scholar, the writer, the figure of cultural significance Lila wants her to be, who Lila herself aches to be. They live in the shadows of their shared expectations, trying to push the other into the light. Lila is the novel’s conscience, Elena its irony; together they form the story of social awakening and exploration.

The women and men of these Neapolitan clans are so wholly under my skin, I feel with each page I’m mining my own family’s history. Ferrante writes with such urgency, such angry clarity, that my own psychology is flushed and agitated.

"Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn't have the strength to find the words…," says Elena at the start of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, looking back on sixty years of friendship. Yet those secret thoughts are offered to the reader in an intimate, vulnerable and enraged portrait of feminine friendship, with Ferrante's beautiful, powerful language. These books are astonishing. I’m already gutted that Book Four, its U.S. release imminent, is the last.

ETA: Interesting article in today's London Review Bookshop: Elena Ferrante on Anonymity
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Reading Progress

May 6, 2015 – Shelved
May 6, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 6, 2015 – Started Reading
August 7, 2015 –
page 51
12.2% ""The essential thing was to get out of Naples.""
August 8, 2015 –
page 200
47.85% ""The coarse language of the environment we came from was useful for attack or self-defense, but, precisely because it was the language of violence, it hindered, rather than encouraged, intimate confidences.""
August 9, 2015 –
page 330
78.95% ""A long period of words without body, of voice alone that ran in waves over an electric sea, suddenly shattered.""
August 9, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
August 9, 2015 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
August 9, 2015 – Shelved as: italy-theme-setting
August 9, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
August 9, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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Julie Christine Ahhhhhh......


message 2: by Esil (new)

Esil Great review Julie. I must really get going on this series. I actually own the first two books


Julie Christine Esil wrote: "Great review Julie. I must really get going on this series. I actually own the first two books" Thank you, Esil. I'm not one to tell people "You must read this," but for a handful of very treasured reads. This collection is one such read (and think of it as a whole, not stand-alones). Brilliant beyond all description.


Suzy what else can we give these books but 5 stars? I know this and haven't even read this one yet :) Will read your review when I've finished reading.


Julie Christine Suzy wrote: "what else can we give these books but 5 stars? I know this and haven't even read this one yet :) Will read your review when I've finished reading."
Such a celebration of extraordinary writing, translation, and unforgettable story. There aren't enough stars! Excited for you to read this, Suzy.


Diane Wonderful review, Julie!


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "Wonderful review, Julie!" Oh, thank you, Diane. And I did read your beautiful review this morning. So happy to spread the love of these books!


message 8: by Debbie (new) - added it

Debbie Fantastic review, Julie! I have this series and now I see I must move them up. Is My Brilliant Friend the first in the series?


Julie Christine Marita wrote: "Great review, Julie. Also, thanks for the link to the article."
Marita- you are so welcome. Thank you so much for the lovely comment!


Julie Christine Debbie wrote: "Fantastic review, Julie! I have this series and now I see I must move them up. Is My Brilliant Friend the first in the series?"

Thank you, sweet friend. Yes. Oh yes you must read these. My Brilliant Friend is the first. Funny, I started it a couple of years ago and it just didn't take. I don't know how I changed, but these books. They have taken my heart.


message 11: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary I really enjoyed your review of Elena Ferrante's treasure. I was recently in Italy where I was so looking forward to finding Italian women's opinions of the books. To my surprise, and shock, no one whom I asked about the books knew anything about them. Shockingly, I was in the Naples area too, and there the books didn't seem popular at all. I wonder why that is.


Julie Christine Mary wrote: "I really enjoyed your review of Elena Ferrante's treasure. I was recently in Italy where I was so looking forward to finding Italian women's opinions of the books. To my surprise, and shock, no ..."

Mary, thank you! How upsetting to hear that Ferrante is not known in her own city, much less her own country!


message 13: by Suzy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Suzy I am just now reading your review - you have so well articulated and captured the many aspects of this book and Ferrante's writing. I can't say I liked it better than the others because they all build on each other, but I do feel this is the most intense and to your point, the most intimate. Only a few days till #4 is available!!!


Julie Christine Suzy wrote: "I am just now reading your review - you have so well articulated and captured the many aspects of this book and Ferrante's writing. I can't say I liked it better than the others because they all bu..." Thank you, Suzy! And now, THREE days :)


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