A good novel, or, as in this case, a good set of novels, set in a historical time (as opposed to a historical novel) can tell more, I believe, about that period than a history book might tell. (The same is true of a good biography.) We can learn more from the Russian revolt of 1906 from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or about working people in late 19th Century France from Emil Zola’s L’Assommoir than history books will tell.
Elena Ferrante was born in 1944 in Naples (as were also the two main protagonists of the Neapolitan Quartet, Lena and Lila.) She would have been 20 years old in 1964, when the United States entered into its miserable war in Viet Nam. At this time there was considerable political unrest in Italy with the Communists trying to unseat the remaining Fascists from government….
At the end of The Story of a New Name, the second book in the quartet (previously reviewed here, as was first, My Brilliant Friend,) Lila has left Stefano. After an affair with Nino, she is abandoned. When she becomes pregnant, she believes the father is Nino, until the boy’s physical characteristics reveal that Stefano is indeed his father.
Elena, meanwhile, has published her first novel, which has been well received, and she is engaged to Pietro, who comes from a well-respected academic family.
This is how she Lila escaped being an abused factory worker: She draws attention to the abject condition of the workers at the factory by writing about it, thus drawing the attention of the young socialists, who want her to be their voice.
But Lila, as usual, has other ideas. When she is humiliated by Bruno, the factory owner, she quits, and moves, with faithful Enzo and Gennaro, back to the old neighborhood, thus, becoming the one of the book’s title who stays, whereas Elena, who is now married Pietro by whom she has had two daughters, Dede and Else, lives in Florence, thus becoming the one who leaves.
Early in Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay Pietro comes to meet Elena’s family and ask for her hand in marriage—the comic gentleness with which he presents himself and curries the favor of Elena’s family is one of the more touching parts of the book. Though intelligent and well educated, Pietro is something of a bore.
“How much I had lost by leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life. Lila, who had remained, had a very new job, she earned lots of money, she acted in absolute freedom and according, to schemes that were indecipherable….”
How I resonate with Elena’s lament—I’m among those who has left, again and again, and now know how much I have lost in so doing.
Sometimes the way out is through. Lila did not abandon Enzo or Gennaro. When they return to the neighborhood, Enzo starts a computer business and Lila is his partner.
Meanwhile, Elena, now married and living in Florence with Pietro and their two daughters, though an excellent mother, has fallen into lethargy and has lost confidence in herself as a writer, when Pietro brings Nino home. Since her childhood Elena has harbored a secret love for Nino. It’s Nino who has the wherewithal to inspire her to begin writing again. He tells her that she should not waste her gift.
“The waste of intelligence. A community that finds it natural to suffocate with care of home and children so many women’s intellectual energies is its own enemy and doesn’t even realize it.”
“When the task we give ourselves has the urgency of passion, there’s nothing that can keep us from completing it.”
Lena writes, “I had the impression that striving for Nino’s approval made the writing easier for me.”
When Nino, who is himself now married and has a child, comes to stay with Pietro and Elena, the inevitable happens—Elena and Nino begin the affair that’s been waiting to happen ever since they were children.
Nino, who resisted becoming like his womanizing father, has become him. Among his talents is a charm that makes him irresistible to women, even intelligent women like Lila and Lena. It’s a pity that so few men fall into this category, making it an open field for those who have it.
As the end of Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay Elena leaves Pietro and her two daughters for Nino. The Story of the Lost Child, then, tells how this situation resolves itself.
I felt encouraged reading about Elena. Even though the cost was high, she followed her heart and went to be with the man she loved. She valued her own desires over what duty dictated, and, for a while she was extremely happy.
Meanwhile, Lila had withdrawn into the life of the old neighborhood. She didn’t have the experiences Lena had—but, their friendship was too strong to be destroyed by the difference in their life styles.
Lena had to accept that Nino had two families, his family with Eleanora and their two children, Albertino and Lidia, and his family with her and her two daughters. Lena and Lila then become pregnant at the same time and both give birth to girls. Lena names her daughter by Nino Imma, and Lila names hers Tina. Tina is the light of Lila’s and Enzo’s life—she’s a quick, witty, and charming child. In comparison Lena worries that Imma is a little slow.
One day Lena comes home to find that Nino is making love to the woman hired to help with household duties. She learns from Lila and others that he is a philanderer worse than his father. He has had sex with many women since he’s been with her and has even propositioned Lila.
Separating from Nino is not easy for Lena. Nino (the rat) claims his inability to contain himself is the result of his exorbitant virility!
The titles of Elena Ferrante’s books are not willy-nilly--each reflects an essential aspect of its story. My Brilliant Friend can be either Lila or Elena, Lila because of her brilliance, her ability to learn quickly, Elena because of her extraordinary writing ability, which allows her to move within Italian society.
The Story of the New Name refers to the name, Carracci, which Lila takes when she marries Stefano—she becomes Signora Carracci, and she lives in a well-appointed apartment until she throws it all away to follow Nino. When Nino leaves her, she is rescued by Enzo.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay then refers to Elena, who leaves; after going to school in Pisa, she marries Pietro and moves to Florence; Lila not only stays in Naples but returns to the old neighborhood where she grew up.
As I read The Story of the Lost Child, I wanted to know who the child was who was lost? Was it Gennaro, Lila’s son by Stefano? Once she recognized his father was Stefano, she seemed to lose interest in him and he grew into a lost soul—in the fashion that sometimes happens to the children of the rich and famous. Was Ms. Ferrante referring to Nino? Because of his behavior and its consequences he could be considered lost.
One of Ms. Ferrante’s strategies is that of surprise—suddenly someone key to a story will reappear. This always surprised and delighted me.
As a book reviewer I have a tendency to tell too much of the stories that I review. So, in this case, I will not tell you, dear reader, who the lost child is. I will only say, when it becomes known, it is surprising, shocking, and devastating. It kind of breaks your heart.
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