With the publication of "My Brilliant Friend," the first of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante's reputation as a novelist extended far beyond her native Italy. Critics, fellow authors and readers on both sides of the Atlantic have become captivated by her clear-eyed portrayal of family ties and the bonds of relationships, and the knots and kinks that develop along the way. Now, with the third installment in the series, "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay," Ferrante continues the exploits of her female leads, Elena and Lila, and reveals the commonalities and separate agendas of two markedly different lives.
This time around we are in the late 1960s and '70s. Both girls have bloomed into young independent women. Elena is starting out as a writer and has swapped "spineless" Naples for the more prosperous north of Italy, where she feels self-conscious about her poor origins. Lila remains in the south, where she slogs in a sausage factory. Elena (who, we are told, is also author of the book we are reading) visits Lila, her partner Enzo, and their child, and reports on the Communist and fascist factions that besiege the factory and her hometown, and records her brilliant friend's feistiness and determination — "Lila who doesn't say things, she does them."
The majority of the book is devoted to Elena and charts her progress and desires. She is engaged to Pietro and plans a wedding in Florence, but enrages her mother with her decision to marry not in a church but the city hall. Further ruptures form when she begins to fall for Nino, a childhood friend and former lover of Lila, and when her sister marries into the undesirable Solara family that has links to the Camorra.
"Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" covers a great swath of social and personal history and, as a result, features many messy lives that twine around and collide into one another. The book's most daunting aspect isn't its content but the detailed "index of characters and notes on the events of the earlier volumes" that prefaces it. Once we have waded through the who's who and apprised ourselves of who has done what to whom, we feel better equipped to dive in and make sense of Ferrante's tangled web.
The novel's driving force is Elena's candor, particularly in the scenes where she makes apparent her disillusionment in the roles of wife and mother ("I was for the second time pregnant and yet empty") and in the powerful finale, where she wrestles with her turbulent emotions toward marriage-wrecking Nino, "an alternative model of virility."
Ferrante's women end up as single-minded and as sexually liberated as D.H. Lawrence's women in love. The more she opens their hearts and minds to us, the more her novel grips and moves us in equal measure.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.