Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 2: The Story of A New Name

Book 1 of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels concluded with the Solara brothers barging in on Lila’s wedding to Stefano Carracci, the original shoes that Lila designed and made and sold to Stefano on Marcello’s feet. Book 2 begins with a first chapter that functions like a prologue, jumping ahead to a moment in 1966, then circling back to pick up right where we left off.

We open with Elena describing Lila giving her a box of her notebooks for safekeeping from Stefano; Elena reads them after swearing to Lila she won’t, admires them with jealousy, then eventually dumps them in a river. We then return to the wedding. After seeing the shoes on Marcello, Elena immediately realizes the marriage is essentially over. Elena feels the need to provoke a semi violent confrontation with Antonio over her behavior with Nino to match what Lila’s going through with Stefano, and tries to get Antonio to penetrate her after they leave the wedding, but he won’t since they’re not married. Lila is furious about the shoes and after the wedding Stefano confesses he made some kind of business deal with the Solaras because it was necessary to make money, and that Marcello asked for the shoes so they gave them to him as a kind of good-will gesture to seal the deal. This makes Lila even angrier, and on the night of their honeymoon she tells Stefano she doesn’t want him and curses him, until he eventually beats and rapes her.

Elena has her ups and downs as a student, skipping school altogether for a period after the wedding, believing it’s not worth it to go on after the failure of her piece to get published in the journal Nino suggested. Lila uses Stefano’s money to buy Elena’s books and Elena studies at their house when her grades dip again after she breaks up with Antonio, who was jealous of Nino and emasculated when Elena got Lila to go to the Solaras to try to get Antonio out of his army service. Elena’s still in love with Nino, who’s dating the daughter of her teacher, Professor Galiani, who one day invites Elena to a party; Lila accompanies her and they see Nino there. Elena feels far more comfortable with the students at the party than her friends in the neighborhood, but on the way home Lila mocks Elena mercilessly about the stuck-up crowd and how Elena sounds around them (out of jealousy really, since she didn’t go past elementary school and now works in her husband’s–really the Solaras’–shoe store in the rich neighborhood).

After working for a period at a bookstore, Elena eventually takes Lila up on her offer of paying Elena as an employee if Lila goes to Ischia on vacation, but only because Elena knows Nino is going there to study with his rich friend Bruno. They also go with Pinuccia, who’s married to Rino now and pregnant; Rino and Stefano visit on the weekends for the month of July, during which period Nino and Lila fall violently in love. Elena, who’s denied her feelings for Nino to Lila this whole time, is miserable in the midst of this development, and lets Nino’s creepy father Donato take her virginity on the beach after helping arrange for Nino and Lila to be able to spend the night together. When Michele Solara visits by surprise and sees Nino and Lila holding hands, resulting in a violent confrontation when Stefano shows up, they leave Ischia, and Elena and Lila don’t see each other for over a year.

When Elena graduates from high school and is getting ready to leave for a university in Pisa to study on scholarship (finally getting out of not just the neighborhood, but Naples), she goes to see Lila where she works at the shoe store in the rich neighborhood. Lila congratulates Elena on getting to leave, and then calls Nino out from where he’s hiding; they’ve been seeing each other at the store on the sly. Elena leaves for Pisa, where she gets a rich boyfriend, Franco Mari, who shows her some of the more cultured ways of the world, and everything that happens to Lila during this time, Elena finds out later: Lila gets pregnant by Nino, leaves Stefano and gets an apartment with Nino, where they live for 23 days until he gets annoyed by the way she’s abrasive when they’re in public and how she’s interfering with his studying, and leaves and doesn’t come back. Then Enzo shows up at her apartment after Antonio, who now works as hired muscle for the Solaras after being discharged from the army, finds Lila at Stefano’s/the Solaras’ behest. She goes back to Stefano and has the baby (whom she names Rino), and while she tells Stefano several times that the baby isn’t his, he refuses to believe it.

The Solaras start to essentially rip off Stefano and Fernando and Rino when they get a different shoe factory to manufacture Lila’s original design and these sell better than the shoes Fernando and Rino make in their factory. Then Lila finds out that Stefano’s been sleeping with Antonio’s sister Ada since before Lila got with Nino, and after she gets pregnant Ada eventually gets more demanding, showing up at the house, etc., until Stefano tells Lila he’s moving her to a house that Michele Solara claimed to have bought for her to move into with him when he tried to get her to leave Stefano, and she realizes her husband has sold her. She leaves with Enzo and they get a cheap place in a different bad neighborhood, and though Enzo loves her, she tells him she won’t sleep with him.

Meanwhile, Elena’s first boyfriend Franco gets kicked out of school for failing an exam, and she gets mocked for being from Naples and for being easy, but then a new guy, Pietro, starts pursuing her whom she eventually finds out is a university professor’s son. Meeting his family, she realizes she’ll always be fundamentally different from people who grew up with the advantage of a cultured upbringing. She and Pietro work on their lit theses together, but the professors treat Pietro with more respect. When they graduate, Elena gives Pietro as a gift the manuscript of her novel, generated from her writing about the episode of Donato Sarratore taking her virginity. Pietro sends her a letter when she’s at home after graduating saying his mother Adele knows someone who wants to publish it. After Elena, stunned with joy at this fulfillment of her and Lila’s childhood dream, signs a contract that will actually pay her money for her book, Maestra Oliviero dies before she can tell her about it, and she gets a box of her old notebooks from one of Maestra Oliviero’s relatives. In one of these she finds the novel Lila wrote when she was ten, “The Blue Fairy,” with comments from Maestra Oliviero all over it about how good it is, which angers Elena since Maestra Oliviero dismissed it at the time and never said anything good about it to either of them. Rereading it, Elena realizes that it provided the core of her own novel.

Elena goes to find Lila to tell her what she’s learned, but when she gets to her new neighborhood she finds out that Lila is working in a salami factory owned by Nino’s friend Bruno’s family. She goes to the factory to find her, and sees her working in brutal conditions. Lila doesn’t seem to remember “The Blue Fairy” when Elena tells her about it, and after Elena gives her the copy of it she turns around and sees Lila burning it in the courtyard bonfire.

When Elena’s novel comes out, her parents seem proud, but no one from the neighborhood actually reads it. She gives her first public reading at a bookstore, and Pietro’s too busy to come. The Q&A doesn’t seem to be going terribly well when a young bearded man stands up and praises “the modernizing force” of her novel–Nino Sarratore. The End. 

The second installment continues the power struggle between Lila and Elena that the first book established. Book 1 ends with Lila at her high point–her fairytale wedding–with the seed of its undoing planted: Stefano giving away her shoes. Book 2 ends with Lila approaching a low point, evicted from the marriage that propelled her so far ahead of Elena in their power struggle in Book 1, she’s now performing slave labor at the salami factory. Not coincidentally, Lila approaches her low point as Elena approaches her high one, the publication of her novel, the fulfillment of that dream that she and Lila had planned to do together. Of course, Lila was the one who betrayed that plan first by writing “The Blue Fairy” (though she only did that because Elena was too busy studying for the school entrance exam she wasn’t getting to take); the power struggle dictates that Elena reciprocate, and at the end of Book 2 she’s back on top–for the moment.

Money and education continue to define the terms of the struggle, especially when Lila takes on Elena as a theoretical employee:

On the road to the beach [Lila] made me carry her bag, and once we were at the beach she sent me back twice, first to get her a scarf, then because she needed some nail scissors. When I gave signs of protest she nearly reminded me of the money she was giving me. She stopped in time, but not so that I didn’t understand: it was like when someone is about to hit you and then doesn’t.

Then, when Lila wins Nino, leaving Elena with the sickening consolation prize of Donato Sarratore, Elena again feels the sting of their struggle:

Instead, as we were returning to Nunzia after our violations, I couldn’t get away from the usual confused sense of disparity, the impression—recurrent in our story—that I was losing something and she was gaining. So occasionally I felt the need to even the score, to tell her how I had lost my virginity between sea and sky, at night, on the beach at the Maronti. … I realized that to tell her about me and my pleasure didn’t matter to me, I would tell my story only to induce her to tell hers and find out how much pleasure she had had with Nino and compare it with mine and feel—I hoped—in the lead. (emphasis mine)

When Elena helps Lila pull off the deceptions that enable Lila to spend the night with Nino, she does it partially as a result of the pressure of Lila’s paying her. Books and education, too, become a weapon in the war for the son of Sarratore, when Lila uses the books Professor Galiani let Elena borrow and impresses Nino with her conversation about them.

The box of Lila’s notebooks provided in the opening chapter is the perfect device for the narrator Elena to be able to provide, in detail, descriptions of what happens to Lila when Elena’s not there. It’s also an action/gesture that’s inherently related to the prologue of the first book (that is, of all the books), in which we learn that Lila in the present is trying to erase herself, and these books that we’re reading are Elena’s effort to not let her do that. When she throws Lila’s notebooks away at the beginning of the second book, that is essentially an act of erasing Lila that in writing the current books she’s atoning for. The notebook device works in particular to allow a first-person narrative that has full insight to what other characters are doing when that first person isn’t around, and it works for this narrative in particular because the characters are writers. Even once we surpass the point when Lila gave Elena the notebooks, which happens in chapter 103, the details Elena knows will be attributed to Lila having told her about them at a later point, and we know that Lila is a vivid storyteller, whether in written or oral form.

The notebooks are also a perfect symbol for Lila’s influence on Elena’s life trajectory. Elena studies the notebooks like she studied the letter Lila sent her when Elena was vacationing on Ischia in the first book. Book 2 presents us with a couple of major life plot points for Elena–that is, moments that determine the path and outcome of the rest of her life: going to college, and getting her book published, the latter arising from the former in that Elena meets her publishing connection through her college boyfriend. Neither of these things would have happened to her without Lila’s influence. As we see in the detailed description of Elena’s entrance interviews, she continues her pattern of taking Lila’s insights and passing them off as her own. Here is Lila’s insight about a Samuel Beckett play in chapter 48:

But, [Lila] added, the biggest impression had been made on her by a Dan Rooney. Dan Rooney, she said, is blind but he’s not bitter about it, because he believes that life is better without sight, and in fact he wonders whether, if one became deaf and mute, life would not be still more life, life without anything but life.

Then, at Elena’s entrance exams in chapter 80:

 I was depressed, I quickly lost confidence in what I was saying. The professor realized it and, looking at me ironically, asked me to talk about something I had read recently. I suppose he meant something by an Italian writer, but I didn’t understand and clung to the first support that seemed to me secure, that is to say the conversation we had had the summer before, on Ischia, on the beach of Citara, about Beckett and about Dan Rooney, who, although he was blind, wanted to become deaf and mute as well. The professor’s ironic expression changed slowly to bewilderment.

So without Lila, Elena would not have gone to college, and if she hadn’t gone to college, she might well not have had her career as a writer, since she might not have met Pietro and through him Adele. While Elena no doubt went through great emotional struggle to produce her first publication, the ease with which she gets her novel published without even trying is a little sickening:

“…But I haven’t even reread what I wrote.”

“You wrote only a single draft, all at once?” she asked, vaguely ironic.

“Yes.”

“I assure you that it’s ready for publication.”

Lila influenced the development of Elena’s novel in other ways; if Lila hadn’t gotten with Nino, Elena wouldn’t have had the beach virginity scene to write about. And then, she rereads “The Blue Fairy” and understands that she’s essentially copied it. Elena sums up the force of Lila’s influence on her in one of her retrospective passages:

This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and the end of 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there. Her things end up among mine: to accommodate them, I am compelled to return to the narrative concerning me (and that had come to me unobstructed), and expand phrases that now sound too concise. For example, if Lila had gone to the Normale in my place would she ever have decided simply to make the best of things? And the time I slapped the girl from Rome, how much did her behavior influence me? How did she manage—even at a distance—to sweep away my artificial meekness, how much of the requisite determination did she give me, how much did she dictate even the insults? And the audacity, when, amid a thousand doubts and fears, I brought Franco to my room—where did that come from if not from her example? And the sense of unhappiness, when I realized that I didn’t love him, when I observed the coldness of my feelings, what was its origin if not, by comparison, the capacity to love that she had demonstrated and was demonstrating?

Yes, it’s Lila who makes writing difficult. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.

Elena in turn influences Lila’s trajectory by being responsible for directing her to Ischia, where Nino is. But other factors play a role in the downfall of Signora Carracci besides the son of Sarratore. The climactic gesture from Book 1, Stefano and Rino betraying Lila by giving Marcello her original shoes, returns to play a pivotal role in their fortunes when the Solaras screw over the Cerullos by taking the shoe Lila designed and having them manufactured somewhere else and selling them without giving any of the profits to Stefano or the Cerullos. As Stefano takes increasing refuge in his failures in Ada, Lila is not only brushed to the side but then essentially sold to Michele Solara, at which point she takes refuge with the steadfast Enzo. Her connection to Nino through Elena then manifests again when Lila runs into Bruno and gets a job at the salami factory. She probably would have had to get a job to help Enzo support herself and her son anyway, but the fact that it comes through this figure reminiscent of the Ischia period is all the more poetic.

The theme of dissolving margins that originated with Lila’s New Year’s Eve 1958 episode in the first book continues to have its dimensions elucidated as Lila’s life as constructed at the end of the first book crumbles and dissolves across the arc of the second:

That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into shapelessness is what most frightened Lila in the course of her life. The loss of those boundaries in her brother, whom she loved more than anyone in her family, had frightened her, and the disintegration of Stefano in the passage from fiancé to husband terrified her. I learned only from her notebooks how much her wedding night had scarred her and how she feared the potential distortion of her husband’s body, his disfigurement by the internal impulses of desire and rage or, on the contrary, of subtle plans, base acts. Especially at night she was afraid of waking up and finding him formless in the bed, transformed into excrescences that burst out because of too much fluid, the flesh melted and dripping, and with it everything around, the furniture, the entire apartment and she herself, his wife, broken, sucked into that stream polluted by living matter.

Ferrante reinforces this theme with the episode of Lila redecorating her wedding portrait to hang in the shoe shop in the rich neighborhood, which she enlists Elena’s help with, foreshadowing how Elena will help Lila dissolve the boundaries of Signora Carracci in setting things up so Lila can spend the night with Nino. The theme also arises in the question of the boundaries between the different generations, when Stefano’s father Don Achille emerges from him after the wedding, and his true nature is revealed.

Having Nino show back up after his long disappearance to defend Elena’s novel is the perfect cliffhanger to segue to the next installment.

-SCR

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

 

Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 1: My Brilliant Friend

Perhaps you’ve heard of the four-book series known as the Neapolitan Novels, published in English from 2012-2015, under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In one of the interviews this elusive author has given, she’s said that she intended the series to read as a single novel. It tells the story of the narrator Elena (Lenù) Greco’s relationship with her friend from childhood, Rafaella (Lila) Cerullo. It’s a complicated relationship. The first installment offers us their childhood and adolescence, as well as a hook from the present day of old age to justify the need to tell this particular story.

In the prologue, “Eliminating All the Traces,” we learn that our first-person narrator is writing this story after she gets a phone call from Rino, her friend Lila’s son, who tells her that Lila had disappeared. Elena recalls when Lila long ago expressed a desire to not just disappear, but erase any trace of her existence; she realizes Lila has disappeared on purpose. Angry, Elena starts writing down everything she remembers of her.

We start with childhood, “The Story of Don Achille.” Elena knew Lila for several years in their relatively impoverished and violent Naples neighborhood before they became friends; Lila was a troublemaker in school who then turned out to already know how to read and write. One day, when they finally play with their dolls together, Lila throws Elena’s down into a dark cellar they’re scared of; Elena, who copies Lila in all things despite being scared, follows suit with Lila’s doll, but when they go down to look they can’t find them, and Lila claims that Don Achille, an ogre-like man in the neighborhood whom everyone is terrified of, took them. In the meantime, Elena receives a proposal of marriage from Nino Sarratore, whom she likes but rejects in her depression over her lost doll. Lila and Elena then go to Don Achille’s door, Lila taking Elena’s hand on the way, the gesture that changes everything between them forever. Don Achille gives them money for new dolls, which they end up buying the novel Little Women with, harboring the dream that they’ll become rich writing novels. The two are competitive in school, though Lila’s better, but then Lila’s parents don’t let her advance to middle school, while Elena’s, despite reservations, do. When Lila pesters her father about letting her go, he throws her out a window, breaking her arm. Elena and Lila are friends with Carmela Peluso, and are at her house when her father, a degenerate gambler who used to have a carpenter shop that Don Achille apparently turned into a grocery, is arrested for murdering Don Achille.

At this point we transition to adolescence, “The Story of the Shoes.” We begin with Lila’s “dissolving margins” episode during New Year’s 1958—during which she momentarily sees physical boundaries as permeable, including those between people—then circle back to earlier, when Elena goes to middle school and Lila starts to work in the shoe shop. Elena hits puberty first, but continues to be aware of Lila’s influence and importance to her. She finds out Lila is secretly reading and is angry Lila will only talk to her about shoes. Lila comes up with a plan for her family to start making shoes at the shop, and designs some, in the interest of getting rich like the Solaras. Donato Sarratore publishes a book of poems that he dedicates to Elena’s neighbor Melina, an unbalanced woman whom this dedication further unbalances; Elena is more preoccupied with the fact that someone from their neighborhood published a book. Lila helps Elena pass her Latin exams. Lila hits puberty. One day, the Solaras try to get Elena and Lila to ride in their car, and Lila pulls her shoemaker’s knife on them. Elena sees the greater city of Naples for the first time when she starts high school. Lila’s beauty causes tension in their neighborhood social group (Ada, Antonio, Pasquale, Carmela, Enzo, Elena, Lila, Rino) when she attracts attention when they leave the neighborhood. Pasquale tells Lila about fascists and the black market, the origin of the money behind Don Achille’s—now Stefano’s—grocery in the neighborhood. Nino Sarratore is at Elena’s high school, but she becomes Gino’s girlfriend. Stefano the grocer invites them for a New Year’s celebration at his house, where he promises they will set off more fireworks than the Solaras, and Lila thinks he’s making a gesture that their generation should move past the violent history between the generation above them (Don Achille et al). They all go (we return to the starting point of Lila’s dissolving margins episode, which Elena only learns about when Lila tells her about it much later), and in their firework competition, the Solaras start firing guns at them. After this episode, Lila stops going to the shoe shop, and Rino shows Fernando the shoes he and Lila made, which infuriate Fernando, who told them he didn’t want them to make shoes. Elena breaks up with Gino for laughing at Alfonso, her classmate, friend, and Stefano’s younger brother. Pasquale and Marcello Solara both make proposals to Lila; she rejects both but only tells everyone about rejecting Marcello. Elena does well in school by studying a lot but also by writing about ideas she’s discussed with Lila. When the gang goes out to the rich part of town one night at Lila’s insistence, the gulf between them and the rich becomes glaringly apparent; Rino gets in an altercation and he and Pasquale are almost beaten up badly but are rescued by the Solara brothers. Marcello comes over to Lila’s and asks Fernando to see the pair of shoes Lila made, but Lila hides them instead of retrieving them for him. At the arrangement of Maestra Oliviero, Elena goes to spend a month of her summer vacation on Ischia, where the Sarratores end up coming to stay in the same house she is. Nino tells her he proposed to her as a child because he wanted to become friends with her and Lila and was jealous of their closeness. After an extended silence, Lila sends her a letter that Elena is jealous of the fluid writing style of before she absorbs the contents that Marcello has been coming over to Lila’s house and her parents believe them to be engaged. In the house on Ischia, Donato Sarratore, Nino’s father, kisses and molests Elena, and she leaves for Naples the next day. Lila gets her to ride in Stefano’s new car with her, and then Stefano buys the shoes Lila made from the shop. He also buys the shop next door for Fernando to expand and have a shoe factory. He then asks for Lila’s hand in marriage and she accepts, happy to be rescued from Marcello Solara’s pursuit. Back at school, Elena rebuffs Nino because he reminds her of his father. Lila starts throwing around Stefano’s money and lording about like a lady. When the Solaras spread rumors about Lila giving Marcello blow jobs, Stefano and Lila decide not to respond, conduct unheard of in their neighborhood; Pasquale, Enzo and Antonio take revenge for them, beating up the Solaras and trashing their car. In an attempt to keep up with Lila, Elena becomes Antonio’s girlfriend. She helps Lila deal with her antagonistic mother- and sister-in-law during the wedding preparations. At school, she challenges a religious idea by repeating something Lila said to her, and gets in a dispute with a teacher that Nino asks her to write about for a local journal; Lila helps Elena write the piece that induces Nino to say she writes better than he does. Elena uses Antonio to make Nino jealous, letting Antonio go into debt for clothes to take her to Lila’s wedding. The newly produced Cerullo shoes, which Fernando, against Stefano’s wishes, modified somewhat from the original design, don’t sell. When Stefano tells Lila that Silvio Solara is going to be the speechmaster at their wedding, she almost calls it off until Elena manages to convince her not to, but she makes him swear Marcello won’t come to the wedding. The morning of the ceremony, Elena bathes Lila and helps her get ready. Nino turns up at the wedding because his sister is Alfonso’s date. Pasquale drives their car to the reception so violently it makes Elena realize that thanks to school she doesn’t belong among this group anymore. At the reception, Elena’s mother has figured out that she’s with Antonio and forces her to sit with her until Elena escapes and sits with Nino, pissing Antonio off. Nino tells her they decided not to publish her article about her dispute with the religion teacher, crushing Elena’s dream about rising above and escaping the neighborhood by seeing her name in print. Just as Nino leaves, the Solara brothers enter, Marcello wearing the original pair of shoes that Rino and Lila made and that Stefano bought before proposing to Lila.  

Part of what reels you in with this book is that Ferrante is spinning two distinct narrative arcs—Elena’s and Lila’s—that complement and weave in and out of each other.

It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.

Hints are dropped along the way that these arcs will diverge by Elena leaving and Lila staying; we’re told in the prologue that Lila “had never left Naples in her life.” What’s fascinating about these arcs is the way they mutually impact each other; if you remove one, the other would necessarily be different; it’s precisely because of Lila that Elena is able to leave. But the prologue also offers a perhaps more subtle hint for where the direction of the entire series is headed: 

To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.

In addition to their interdependency, the first book’s title, My Brilliant Friend, underscores the pair’s interchangeability when it makes an appearance in-text. Since the title is in first person and our first-person narrator is Elena, the likely initial impression of the term is that Lila is Lenù’s brilliant friend, but in the text, it’s Lila using it to refer to Lenù:

“No, don’t ever stop: I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying.”
I gave a nervous laugh, then said, “Thanks, but at a certain point school is over.”
“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

This is late in the book (chapter 57 of 62), and here we see each near the climax of their arcs, for this installment anyway: Elena’s arc is defined by her success in school, which is irrevocably influenced by Lila; Elena would not have done as well in school as she does without Lila intellectually challenging her. Lila, cut off from school early, pursues wealth, first in the form of trying to design and make shoes, then in a relationship with someone prominent in the neighborhood, Stefano the grocer; she’s described as plotting this outcome with Elena as a means of escaping Marcello. The question that keeps us going (in addition to the well-drawn characters) is will Elena and Lila be able to escape the toxic suck of their neighborhood and upbringing? How will their neighborhood’s influence and history impact their trajectories and manifest in their futures?

In their neighborhood, there’s a pervasive awareness of class, of people defined by their jobs and children defined by what their parents do: 

Carmela couldn’t believe that I had refused the son of the pharmacist, and she told Lila. She, surprisingly, instead of slipping away with the air of someone saying Who cares, was interested.

and

But above all it was now clear that I wasn’t clever: the young son of Don Achille had passed and I hadn’t, the daughter of Spagnuolo the pastry maker had passed and I hadn’t: one had to be resigned.

There are also certain rules and standards, which are upheld and enforced by violence. As Elena explains when she refuses to ride with the Solaras:

I said no because if my father found out that I had gone in that car, even though he was a good and loving man, even though he loved me very much, he would have beat me to death, while at the same time my little brothers, Peppe and Gianni, young as they were, would feel obliged, now and in the future, to try to kill the Solara brothers.

Lila tries to escape by remaining in the neighborhood but changing its codes of conduct, to varying degrees of success—her father throwing her out the window for trying to insist on continuing school is, at the least, foreshadowing the fate of most of her most vehement efforts. Elena will try to escape literally through education, which is why an entire chapter is focused on when she gets to see the city outside the neighborhood for the first time going to high school. This pattern of school being her literal escape will continue (we see it in play when Elena gets to go to Ischia while back home Lila suffers through Marcello’s pursuit). What shifts and keeps the narrative going is Elena’s confidence in whether she’s capable of escaping or not. The climax of Lila’s wedding cements Lila in the neighborhood, possibly in a role where she might be able to change things, while on the way to the wedding reception, Elena realizes from Pasquale’s violent driving and the boys’ crude behavior that she doesn’t belong among the people who come from her neighborhood anymore. At the reception, Elena is pulled between the competing forces that define her—her school life, through the appearance of Nino, and her neighborhood life, via her date, her boyfriend Antonio. We see that Elena’s preference here is clearly Nino—and thus the life that school engenders. But then when Nino tells her her article wasn’t published, it makes her question everything—she’s not so sure she doesn’t belong among those of her neighborhood anymore. (In the beginning of book 2, when Elena begins to skip school, we’ll see the threat this publication failure poses to her trajectory.) Lila’s position is also challenged, in her case by the appearance of the Solaras at her wedding, which necessarily indicates betrayal on the part of the husband who was supposed to be the key to escaping her circumstances. 

Despite the fact that they’re pursuing different life paths—education versus wealth—Elena copying or attempting to copy Lila will be a pattern that recurs in different ways throughout the series. Elena attempts to define herself both through Lila and in opposition to her, but from the first book we understand that reacting to Lila, in one way or another, is the engine of Elena’s motivation; Lila gives her life meaning and is essentially the reason Elena does everything that she does. Lila is an essential part of her identity. (As a Telegraph review of a play adaptation of the series puts it, “both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.”) In the first chapter, this pattern is set up when Elena tells us:

I immediately did the same [as Lila], although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself.

This before they’ve even spoken to each other yet.

In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway, paraphrasing novelist Michael Sharra, describes narrative arcs as “a power struggle between equal forces,” and tension rising by “shifting the power back and forth from one antagonist to the other.” A lot of the tension in Ferrante’s twin arcs is caused by Elena’s shifting relation to Lila—she’s second to her in elementary school, superior to her in middle school and her own puberty, inferior again once Lila hits puberty and Pasquale becomes interested in her, superior when she gets the opportunity to go to Ishchia, inferior again when Lila snags Stefano and money. Elena’s primary motivating force is to keep up with Lila; sometimes she lags behind, sometimes she perceives herself to be ahead. This power struggle is perfectly embodied in the chapter 57 quote from earlier when Lila orders Lenù to keep studying, telling her she’ll pay for it. Studying and school are Elena’s sources of power over Lila, and Lila attempts to control Elena’s studying, that source of power over herself, via wealth, her source of power over Elena.

The richness of the history we’re provided with as the backdrop to these events is in large part what imbues them with their emotional power and provides the novel a texture of complexity. Ferrante excels at balancing the retrospective perspective of her narrator, who already knows everything that’s happened, with the decidedly restricted perspective of a child and adolescent; these two different modes are almost like the pedals that propel the bicycle of the narrative along. As children, Elena and Lila experience the violence of their neighborhood as the state of normalcy and, based largely on what they’ve heard their parents say, are terrified of Don Achille. Take the description of Elena’s childhood perception of Don Achille taking the Pelusos’ carpenter shop and turning it into a grocery:

For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made up Don Achille. For years I saw his body—a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials—emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto.

Later, the reader will understand that Don Achille was so hated by the generation of Elena and Lila’s parents because he was a loan shark, and that he took the carpenter shop because Peluso was in debt to him that he was unable to pay back. The path that Don Achille’s dirty money takes after his death is what makes Lila’s actions relevant in a larger context. By marrying Stefano, she’s profiting from one of the neighborhood’s most violent defining forces, and she herself is aware of this fact. 

So a big part of what provides this complex texture is the movement between vividly, sensorily occupying a specific moment in time, and reflecting on the implications of such moments from a future vantage:

“It seemed to me—articulated in words of today—that not only did [Lila] know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realized, with pleasure, that, as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same, and I tried and it came easily.” (emphasis mine)

In this retrospectively enhanced passage, we see that what is ultimately Elena’s interest in writing, that which will dictate her scholastic, career, and life paths, originates with Lila. We see more of Lila’s writing ability when she dramatizes in story the formative event of their childhood—the murder of Don Achille—making the murderer a woman and embellishing with another detail:

The blood spurted from his neck and hit a copper pot hanging on the wall. The copper was so shiny that the blood looked like an ink stain from which—Lila told us—dripped a wavering black line.

It is no coincidence that the comparison of the violence at this definitive moment invokes writing. The development of the symbol of the copper pot effectively dramatizes the elements of the writing process that Lila is best at, elements which we study through Elena’s eyes in the manner of a student.

The copper pot reappears in Lila’s letter to Elena when Elena’s on Ishchia, another defining moment for her and in particular her writing; we later observe the import of this moment when, during her exams, the teachers praise Elena’s fluid writing style, which she essentially learned by studying Lila’s letter. Part of what she finds so enthralling about this letter, in addition to its as-if-spoken voice, is, essentially, its symbolism.

A few evenings earlier, something had happened that had really scared [Lila]. … She had turned suddenly and realized that the big copper pot had exploded. Like that, by itself. It was hanging on the nail where it normally hung, but in the middle there was a large hole and the rim was lifted and twisted and the pot itself was all deformed, as if it could no longer maintain its appearance as a pot. Her mother had hurried in in her nightgown and had blamed her for dropping it and ruining it. But a copper pot, even if you drop it, doesn’t break and doesn’t become misshapen like that. “It’s this sort of thing,” Lila concluded, “that frightens me. More than Marcello, more than anyone. And I feel that I have to find a solution, otherwise, everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything.”

Elena is jealous of Lila’s writing ability, though her own ability to articulate what’s so great about it is no less enviable:

My gaze fell on the copper pots.

How evocative Lila’s writing was; I looked at the pots with increasing distress. I remembered that she had always liked their brilliance, when she washed them she took great care in polishing them. On them, not coincidentally, four years earlier, she had placed the blood that spurted from the neck of Don Achille when he was stabbed. On them now she had deposited that sensation of threat, the anguish over the difficult choice she had, making one of them explode like a sign, as if its shape had decided abruptly to cede. Would I know how to imagine those things without her? Would I know how to give life to every object, let it bend in unison with mine?

The answer, of course, is no.

The copper pot comes up one more time, when Elena thinks she sees Donato Sarratore in the neighborhood after his taking advantage of her on Ischia:

Whether that apparition was true or false, the sound my heart made in my chest, like a gunshot, stayed with me, and, I don’t know why, I thought of the passage in Lila’s letter about the sound that the copper pot had made when it burst. That same sound returned the next day, at the mere sight of Nino.

Elena admires Lila’s ability to connect events, to trace lines through things, to provide some sort of order in the chaos of their world. Elena does the same after reading Lila’s letter, thinking about the period she attaches herself to Stefano’s brother Alfonso during Lila’s engagement:

…it seemed to me right that the duty had fallen to two Carraccis, Stefano and him, to protect, if in different forms, Lila and me from the blackest evil in the world, from that very evil that we had experienced for the first time going up the stairs that led to their house, when we went to retrieve the dolls that their father had stolen.

Thus ends chapter 34. Then chapter 35 begins:

I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.

Elena has two parallel plots of her own playing out, one with Lila and one with Nino, each contributing to a kind of a French braid if the central thread is her school trajectory. While the Lila thread is more prominent in the first book, the Nino thread will gain increasing traction. In the first book, his major plot points are: he makes Elena a proposal of future marriage when they’re children; he’s almost killed when his family moves out of the neighborhood after the melee with Melina; they end up in high school together; they end up on Ischia together—at which point he tells her he proposed as a child not just because he liked her but because he liked her and Lila; his father molests her and so she rebuffs him when they return to school after Ischia; he asks her to write the article about the dispute with the religion teacher, offering her a chance to see her name in print and thereby escape the grip she imagines the neighborhood holds on her; he turns up at the wedding, telling her the article was not published, crushing her dream.

Part of what the retrospective perspective enables Ferrante to do is jump to different points in time. She will repeatedly manipulate chronologies to increase tension, as is apparent from the prologue told from the present day. Then when childhood starts, the structure of the order we get events in resembles a slingshot of sorts: we start with the defining moment, going up the stairs together to Don Achille’s, then pull back to when Elena first met Lila in school, then pull back further to their playing with their dolls together without actually speaking, then to Elena helping Lila in the rock fight that started because of the school competition (still without speaking), then meet back up to the stairs moment and go from there, though still with some little jumps back and forth in time here and there. Writers who are afraid of exposition could take a page from Ferrante, who loves to offer a general (while engaging and vivid) description of a time period then tell you that two different important episodes occurred then, and here are the scenes of what they were. We are not simply shown Elena’s actions and left to interpret them for ourselves; rather, frequently, motivations are elucidated:

Why do you behave like that, the father isn’t the son, the son isn’t the father, behave as Stefano did with the Pelusos. But I couldn’t. As soon as I imagined kissing him, I felt the mouth of Donato, and a wave of pleasure and revulsion mixed father and son into a single person.

The question of whether fathers are like sons, referenced most overtly with the pairings of Don Achille and his son Stefano and Donato Saratorre and his son Nino, is one that the series will continue to explore as Elena continues to waver over it. It’s also symbolic of the larger question of how much their generation will resemble that of their parents. Lila supposedly marries Stefano thinking that he’s not like Don Achille, while Elena is hindered from getting with Nino by her inability to separate him from his father.

In addition to the complex sequencing of her scenes, the structure of Ferrante’s sentences also deserves mention. So many imbedded clauses! There are many qualifiers for sentences that are what Annie Proulx called “architectural marvels” when she read here in Houston this past January. The retrospective perspective seems to be part of what enables her to pack so much into a single moment. Just look at all the commas, and feel the rhythm they supply:

Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself.

-SCR