Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan novels are a recurring conversation topic among my reading friends, with the vast majority having read them already or starting to read them now. Often in the ongoing discussions, there’s an initial cluelessness in not understanding exactly why everyone keeps talking about the books (and why their covers are so ugly — it’s on purpose!), followed by a kind of wonder at being engulfed as well.

In some ways it’s hard to describe what is so beguiling about Ferrante’s writing; the language is fairly simple and often chapters are comprised of everyday banalities that progress to interesting moments, but rather slowly. Despite the often mundane nature of the story, there is an emotional intensity and self-awareness in Elena’s voice that creates a sense of intimacy, combined with a feeling of urgency from a writing style that alternates fragments of thought with run-on sentences. In this book Elena largely stagnates in her intellectual life and Lila is less present overall, so it would seem to be the lull of the series as the story of their friendship, yet by the end a lot so much has happened.

The two moments that stood out for me (aside from the usual cliff-hanging ending — though here cliff-jumping might be more appropriate) was first when Elena stubbornly insists that an experience Lila had warned was horrible when she went through it was really no problem in her own experience, and Lila replies sardonically, “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.” Later as Elena is finding a new stride in her writing work, she muses:

…I sometimes imagined what my life and Lila’s would have been if we had both taken the test for admission to middle school and then high school, if together we had studied to get our degree, elbow to elbow, allied, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies, of the pleasures of understanding and the imagination. We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other, we would have fought shoulder to shoulder. The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself, it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition.

I read The Story of a New Name (the second book in this series) not long after finishing My Brilliant Friend and didn’t write anything about it. Instead I will point you toward my friend Phil’s beautiful response over on Goodreads.

more from this author