Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ is the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels following My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. The book opens with Elena and Lila aged in their sixties coming across the body of their childhood friend Gigliola in a church flower bed. Lila doesn’t want Elena to write an autobiographical novel about their friendship causing Elena to reflect on their early adulthood towards the end of the 1960s. Elena is engaged to be married to Pietro, a professor she met at university, and has recently published her first novel which has caused something of a stir amongst critics. Meanwhile, having left Nino, Lila is living with Enzo and working in Bruno Soccava’s sausage factory whilst bringing up her son Gennaro. Nevertheless, they remain bound to each other through their friendship and rivalry.
The dynamic of ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ is somewhat different from the first two volumes. Having grown up together as close childhood friends and rivals, Elena and Lila are living almost entirely separate lives as a natural consequence of taking different paths in life and starting their own families. The revolutionary backdrop of the late 1960s and early 1970s adds to the already vivid portrait of both post-war Italy as well as Elena and Lila’s increasing political awareness. Now aged in their twenties and thirties, they have both developed as characters from the children we met in ‘My Brilliant Friend’ but their personalities remain as distinctive as ever. Their fortunes continue to fluctuate with the character who is struggling tending to lean on the other despite their physical and emotional distance – whether it is the context of Lila’s involvement in the anti-fascist movement at the factory or Elena dealing with post-natal depression whilst trying to write her second book.
While there is less focus on Lila in this book, significant characters and events from Elena’s past are still having widespread repercussions in her life and Ferrante has made it clear from the start that her devotion to Nino was never going to end well. I felt that ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ was building towards a much more devastating climax than the earlier volumes and the fallout from the cliffhanger ending is set to be particularly significant.
Part soap opera and part Greek tragedy, the Neapolitan novels have been a consistently brilliant series so far and I can definitely see why there was some surprise that ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ was overlooked for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. I look forward to reading the final volume ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ as I have heard that it’s a fitting finale to the series and I very much hope it is recognised by the Man Booker International Prize judges next year.