Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 4: The Story of the Lost Child

Finally, we have come to the end. We’ve made it through Book 1, culminating with Lila’s wedding to Stefano, Book 2, culminating with Nino showing up at Elena’s first public reading as a novelist, and Book 3, covering Elena’s marriage to Pietro and her life in Florence, her struggle to write as she becomes the mother of two daughters, and leaving Pietro for that long-running object of her affection, Nino Sarratore.

Book 4 begins with Elena describing how she and Lila aren’t friends from Oct 1976 to 1979, despite Lila’s efforts to insert herself into Elena’s life. She’s mad at Lila for saying that by leaving with Nino, she was doing harm to her daughters, who up to that point Lila had never seemed to care about.

At the conference Elena attends with Nino, she starts to get jealous of the flirtatious way he acts with another female scholar until she realizes that’s his way with all women; she also hears him talking on the phone to someone he swears isn’t his wife. When she gets back to Florence (after delaying with a side trip to Paris), Adele is with the children and Pietro is hiding somewhere. Elena goes to Naples to meet Nino and he tells her Lila’s called and wants to see them, so they meet with her; Elena’s new book of her story/essay about man inventing woman is her one thing to cling to. Lila drags her to the shoe shop in Piazza dei Martiri to see all their old friends, including Antonio, home with his family from Germany; everyone there more or less ignores Nino, with Antonio warning that Nino doesn’t respect her. Elena realizes that Alfonso, who’s grown his hair long, strongly resembles Lila.

Elena tours France for her new book. She almost misses Christmas with her family to meet Nino briefly in Rome, but then when she finally gets to Florence she finds out Pietro sent the kids to his parents. Pietro breaks his arm punching a wall when she tells him she wants to move with the girls to Naples, where Nino lives; she believes he is also ending things with his wife to be with her. Then Pietro tells her he’s told her mother what she’s done, and she’s about to arrive. She’s violently angry with Elena and at one point starts hitting her; Elena shoves her, accidentally knocking her down. Adele tries to encourage Elena to leave the kids with her. Nino confesses that when they were teenagers and Elena wrote the article about the conflict with her religion teacher, he threw the article away because he was jealous it was so good. When Elena goes to get the children in Genoa, she clashes with her in-laws over Nino, who has a womanizing reputation. She travels for work and sees Mariarosa, and when she comes back she asks the kids if they want to go with her or stay with their grandparents, and they choose the latter.

Her second book is a success, even though her editor confides that Adele tried to stop them from publishing it. Lila, who calls frequently, becomes more focused on the neighborhood as Elena travels more. Carmen wants Elena to use her connections to try to find out where Pasquale is. When Elena and Nino are traveling in Germany, they’re stopped and interrogated all night for being Italian. They travel a lot in the year and a half they’re together, and sometimes she gets political during her talks. She quarrels violently with Adele when she tells her she’s moving the girls to Naples.

Then Lila tells Elena she had Antonio follow Nino and that he never left his wife, and that his father-in-law just got him an important job. When Nino confirms this is true, she says she’s leaving him. She fights with Adele (calling her out for cheating on her husband, which Pietro told her about) until Adele kicks her out, and she goes with the girls to Mariarosa’s in Milan. Nino calls constantly, but still won’t leave his wife. Franco, who’s lived with Mariarosa since the beating where he lost his eye, takes care of the girls when Elena travels. Nino arrives to tell her his wife is seven months pregnant, greatly upsetting her. Then Franco kills himself, and Elena moves to an apartment Nino’s rented for her in Naples and becomes his lover again. When she visits her mother’s, her mother says if she’s not with Pietro next time she should never show up again. When she goes to see Elisa, who’s pregnant, she finds her sister much more aggressive, blaming Elena for their mother’s poor health. Elisa also insinuates that Lina is threatening Marcello in some way she better stop.

When Elena sees Lila, she suddenly feels guilty for trying to cut her out of her life and is impressed by what she’s done with the computer company she’s started, Basic Sight. Lila and Carmen confess Pasquale has showed up recently. Lila is an admired success in the neighborhood, especially after using the Solaras; Michele’s been acting crazy since his mother died and Marcello claims it’s Lila’s fault. Elena keeps her distance from Lila until she and Nino are going to the United States for two weeks and she can’t find anyone else to watch her daughters; Lila readily agrees. When she gets back, she’s pregnant—and so is Lila.

Elena gets over the last of her hostility toward Lila’s malicious side when Lila helps explain their domestic situation to her daughters as parallel to Lila’s own: married to one man whose last name their children have, but now having babies by different men they’re not married to. She finally tells Nino about the pregnancy and he’s pleased, though he doesn’t plan to tell his wife about it. He takes Elena to lunch with his parents, and Donato tries to take credit for sparking Elena’s interest in the written word. Elisa has Marcello’s baby and their mother is diagnosed with a serious illness that makes her more emotional and allows for an unprecedented intimacy between her and Elena. She regrets giving her other three kids to the Solaras and wants Elena to get them away from them by getting them jobs with Lila, whom she now admires and thinks capable of crushing the Solaras.

Elena’s pregnancy is easy, Lila’s hard; they go to doctor’s appointments together and are close, but Elena realizes while she confides everything to Lila, Lila is vague when she confides in turn. Elena continues to travel and cultivate her reputation, which is nonexistent when she returns to the neighborhood. Antonio now seems to work for Lila more than the Solaras, but Lila says she can’t take on Elena’s brothers, even though Alfonso also works for her now. She goes shopping with Lila and Alfonso and when he tries on a dress he looks just like her. Elena wants to ask Lila what she knows about Nino that she’s not letting on, but to segue into it asks about what she’s done to Michele, and Lila talks about how Marcello’s been bringing drugs into the neighborhood. As they’re talking, an earthquake hits, and Lila is more terrified than Elena at this loss of control. They take shelter in Lila’s car and Elena sees Marcello drive by with her sister and parents. Lila cries that boundaries are dissolving, the first time she’s used this phrase with Elena, and Lila tells her about how it happened on NYE 1958. Lila believes everything will be undone. Nino disappears with his family for days, reinforcing for the pregnant Elena that he doesn’t care about her. She gets sucked further into the drama of the neighborhood; Lila intimates if she’s going to interfere (i.e., confront Marcello about the drugs) then she has to go all in, not just go back up to her place on Via Tasso. Elena lies to her mother that Lila can take her brothers on.

Elena gives birth to a daughter whose delivery is especially easy and whom she names after her mother, with Nino’s surname. When Lila brings Elena’s mother up to Via Tasso to visit the baby, her mother starts dripping blood. After Nino and Lila take her to the hospital, Marcello and Elisa show up there and start fighting with them about transferring her to a clinic, which they eventually succeed in getting her to. Carmen and Alfonso are extremely grateful to Lila for helping them, and Alfonso says if he turns up murdered, it was Marcello. Lila helps out with her daughters a lot while Elena visits her mother at the clinic. Lila finally has a painful birth and the doctor accuses her of trying to keep the child in. With their babies near the same age they start spending even more time together. Elena’s mother tells her she is her favorite child before she dies.

Her editor asks for a meeting to talk about when her next book (which she’s been lying about the progress of) will be released, and she promises to deliver something soon. She lets Nino hire a woman to help out so she can write. Nino spends time with the children but doesn’t become attached to his daughter Imma. When his career improves after she’s born, Elena realizes that behind every one of his advances has been the help of a connected woman, and that he’s only interested in cultivating relations that will help himself. She also realizes he’s doing things that Pietro used to do that angered her.

Then she comes home one day and catches Nino having sex with Silvana, the older overweight woman they hired for help. She takes Imma and has to pick up the girls from school, then goes to Lila’s and tells her everything. Lila says she made a mistake and needs to leave Nino, and when Elena seems reticent, Lila confesses that Nino has been hitting on her, too. When Elena’s at home later, Antonio shows up, sent by Lila, and when he comforts her, she sleeps with him. She fights with Nino and doesn’t get any work done, and when her editor eventually gets hold of her she says the book is finished and sends him the manuscript from years ago inspired by Manuela Solara’s murder that Adele didn’t like. She assumes this will mean her career as a writer is over and is scared about what she’ll do for work once she finally manages to kick Nino out for good, but then the editor loves the book. 

Thinking it will help her finish the manuscript, Elena moves into an apartment directly above Lila in the old neighborhood. She starts to compare her daughter Imma to Lila’s daughter Tina, who’s more advanced and vivacious. Being in the neighborhood seems good for the Elsa’s and Dede’s confidence, since they consider themselves better than their classmates. Lila is worried about Tina, since Gennaro also showed early promise that came to naught, and when Elena says it’s because of the neighborhood, Lila says they should change the neighborhood. Elena realizes that people attribute enough power to Lila that she could do it. Marcello finally marries Elisa and appears reconciled with Michele, who seems to have recovered from his crazy period. Alfonso, whom Elena deduces had some kind of sexual relationship with Michele, starts acting increasingly erratic when that relationship is apparently over.

The publisher sends a photographer to promote the book, and ends up taking a picture of Elena with the more attractive Tina instead of Imma that’s published with the caption that Tina is Elena’s daughter. When the book comes out, the Solaras are furious because the articles surrounding it talk more about them and their criminal dealings than the actual book. Elena is scared at first, but then Lila convinces her it’s a good thing, that she’s more dangerous for them than they are for her.

The novel is successful and Elena has to travel a lot for it, leaving her daughters in Lila’s care. Then she finds out that Carmen is bringing a lawsuit against her for some of the book’s content. Lila tells her the Solaras are making Carmen do it, which Carmen confirms, saying they claimed to know where Pasquale is—who they believe murdered their mother—and would kill him. Carmen is horrified by Elena’s suggestion that Pasquale should turn himself in so he’ll be safe from the Solaras. An article appears about the lawsuit that Lila finds disappointing because Elena didn’t write it herself. Lila finds out Gennaro is doing heroin and kicks Rino, a known addict, out of Basic Sight. Then Alfonso turns up beaten to death and hardly anyone comes to the funeral—except the Solaras. When Lila confronts Michele there and says the two of them are finished in the neighborhood, he punches her in the face.

Elena agrees to write articles that will damage the brothers using the things Lila knows from having worked for Michele. They go through a lot of documents she’s collected and work together (for the last time) to compile a piece they hope will send them to jail, but her publisher says the information isn’t enough to do that. But after she decides not to publish it, Lila sends it to a paper with Elena’s name on it. It turns out to bring her further success, and the Solaras do nothing in response, though Elisa stops talking to her. Lila, disillusioned by the lack of public response, stops helping with the children and sends her mother to, who then, to Elena’s surprise, requests payment.

Lila points out that Imma, who, along with Tina, is almost four, seems to be having problems that she attributes to a lack of parenting, so Elena makes an effort to get Nino more involved, and he comes over for lunch one day, in the fall of 1984. He takes Dede, Elsa, Imma, and Tina (whom Lila still sent up to Elena’s apartment despite Nino’s coming) outside to see his fancy new car. When Elena goes out, she sees that Nino is talking to Enzo and Lila, who’s holding Imma as if to help show her off. Then they realize that Tina is gone. Everyone looks everywhere, but there’s no trace of her, and a rumor starts that a big truck hit and dragged her off (though there’s no physical evidence to support this).

We then move into “Old Age: The Story of Bad Blood.” Elena reveals that she finally leaves the neighborhood and Naples for Turin in 1995, when Imma is fourteen and Dede and Elsa have gone off to study in the United States, where Pietro is teaching at Harvard. Imma eventually leaves to study in Paris, and Elena’s fame, maintained by a steady stream of publications, starts to wane. She visits Lila frequently. Then, some time after she sees Lila in 2005, when they came upon Gigliola’s body and Lila told her not to write about her, Elena writes a small book about what happened to Tina called A Friendship that is successful and revives her fame. Lila has ignored her ever since.

We then circle back to the period after Tina’s disappearance. The Solaras involve themselves heavily and publicly in the search. Lila maintains that Tina is still alive. She loses respect in the neighborhood since her daughter’s disappearance proves she’s not invincible, as people had thought. She has to deal with Gennaro’s drug use. Elena’s daughters start to fight with Lila more when Elena has to travel. Then Rino disappears and Gennaro and Stefano find his overdosed corpse in a junkyard. Pinuccia starts watching the girls instead of Nunzia. Elena and Lila meet the Solaras on the street one day and are falsely cordial; Michele ends up grabbing Elena’s wrist and breaking her mother’s bracelet again, and when he takes it to fix Lila claims she’ll never get it back. When Lila’s ill one day, Elena goes out to the pharmacy and hears shots fired—at the Solara brothers, who are killed (in 1986). Rumors fly, but no one knows who did it. Awhile later, Elena gets a package from a jeweler with her mother’s repaired bracelet. Lila has to be hospitalized to have her uterus removed and isn’t going to work anymore. She gives Elena a computer to write on and teaches her daughters how to use it. She starts leaving randomly to wander the city.

Nadia Galiani is arrested, while Nino is elected to a seat in Parliament. Lila points out that Dede is in love with Gennaro, which Dede admits, telling Elena she intends to run away with him after she finishes school. Elena gets Pietro to talk to Dede right before he leaves for America, but to no avail. Lila tells Pietro, who tells Elena, that she spends entire days in the library researching the city’s history. Elena sleeps with Pietro one last time before he leaves. After Pasquale is arrested due to Nadia’s testimony, Elena takes Imma with her to Rome to visit Nino to see if he can do anything for him. When she returns, Gennaro has left Lila a note that he’s left—not with Dede, but with Elsa. With Enzo, Elena finally tracks them down at Adele and Guido’s in Florence, and says both Elsa and Gennaro (who now goes by Rino) will live in their apartment until she gets sick of him. Dede leaves for America.

Enzo is arrested because of Nadia’s testimony and is held for two years; Lila spends a lot on lawyers. Surprisingly, Nadia never implicates Lila in anything, but because of the situation their business tanks and they sell it; in 1992 Enzo and Lila separate in both business and life. When Elsa finally leaves for America, Rino continues to live in their apartment and do odd jobs for Elena; he tells her that Lila is frequently writing at her computer. Then the corruption of high-level officials starts to be publicized, with both Guido Airota and Nino being accused, which upsets Imma, who idolizes her father. Lila takes Imma all over the city, sharing the history of buildings and monuments. Elena tells Imma she doesn’t think Nino will be elected again, but by shifting his position to the right, he eventually is. As Elena is getting ready to leave in 1995, Lila admits that she thought Tina was taken because of the picture of her with Elena that appeared in the paper, because the kidnappers thought she was Elena’s daughter, not hers. Elena realizes how little of Lila’s suffering she’s understood.

In Turin, Elena runs a publishing house and thinks about the manuscript Lila may or may not be working on about the city; at first she hopes she is, but then, after her daughters visit and Elsa lightly mocks her writing, making her realize how outdated and insubstantial it is, she starts to become afraid of the possibility that Lila will create something of lasting power when she hasn’t been able to. But when she sees Lila, Lila insists she isn’t writing; she starts expressing the desire to erase herself. After A Friendship is published, Lila refuses to see her, and she has to accept that their friendship is over. She ponders what about the book Lila found so offensive and thinks about the connection she drew between the lost dolls and the lost daughter. She thinks in writing this current book she’s been trying to give Lila a form with boundaries that won’t dissolve.

In the final section, “Epilogue: Restitution,” Elena rereads her pages to see if there’s any trace that Lila actually did hijack her computer and alter them, but there’s no trace of her. She returns to Naples for funerals and visits Pasquale in prison, who tells her the Solaras took Tina but doesn’t seem to actually believe it. He says when Lila wants to, she’ll turn up. Then one day, Elena gets a package wrapped in newspaper that contains her and Lila’s old dolls, Tina and Nu, and realizes Lila has been deceiving her since the beginning, but then thinks it might just be a sign Lila is well and finally traveling the world. At any rate, she must resign herself to not seeing Lila anymore. The End.  

The setup in the prologue at the beginning of the first book—Lila’s disappearance in the present—raises the question of whether she will reappear when the narrative finally, in Book 4, catches up to that present timeline. There seem two obvious possible answers to this question: yes, she will show up, or no, she won’t. Ferrante complicates the answer when Lila does effectively show up, but not in the expected way where Elena gets to see her actual person and talk to her. But the appearance of the package—obviously not mailed—implies that Lila has, in essence, reappeared.

So what does the manifestation of her reappearance, the dolls, further imply? Basically, that Lila deceived Elena at the very origin point of their relationship. This is the point Lila offers her hand to Elena when they’re going up the stairs to Don Achille’s, but this moment would not exist if the dolls had not vanished—or rather, if Elena hadn’t believed they’d vanished. The possible implication seems to be that Lila knew all along Don Achille was not responsible for taking the dolls, but went up there to accuse him anyway. In the course of doing so, she took money from him, money they then used to buy Little Women, which inspired Lila to write The Blue Fairy, which turns into the core of Elena’s first novel; without that core, the novel likely would not have been strong enough to be published, and Elena would not have had the foundation for the rest of her career. Hence, without Don Achille’s money, Elena’s life as a writer might not have happened. She profits from the neighborhood’s dirty black-market money in a similarly dubious if less direct way as Lila does when she marries Don Achille’s son Stefano. (Notably, of all the traces of herself Lila manages to erase and that have been erased, like Tina, she has left behind her son, Don Achille’s grandchild.)

The power struggle between Elena and Lila is carried through the fourth installment in a couple of different ways. Elena might consider herself to have gained more power by becoming the lover of Nino, who left Lila, though she later finds out that Nino actually tried to go back to her but that Antonio stopped him, causing Elena to wonder if Lila might have been the one woman who could have really changed Nino. As it is, she attributes power to Lila for a different reason: 

…I realized that if I had forced [Nino] to delve into himself, it would have emerged that the highest example of female intelligence—maybe his own worship of female intelligence, even certain lectures claiming that the waste of women’s intellectual resources was the greatest waste of all—had to do with Lila, and that if our season of love was already darkening, the season of Ischia would always remain radiant for him. The man for whom I left Pietro, I thought, is what he is because his encounter with Lila reshaped him that way.

Lila, meanwhile, maintains the upper hand by also knowing what Nino’s really up to, and by now the reader knows well, as Elena finally starts to come to terms with it, that Nino is hardly as great as she has made him out to be. We also learn in Book 4 that Elena didn’t get her first byline because Nino threw her piece away, not because the editors didn’t like it; her believing the latter nearly derailed Elena from her studies and thus her career path altogether.

How important that article had been to me, how much I had suffered. I couldn’t believe it: was it possible that Professor Galiani’s favorite had been so envious of the lines of a middle-school student that he threw them away? I felt that Nino was waiting for my reaction, but I didn’t know how to place such a petty act within the radiant aura I had given him as a girl.

The ongoing question of whether Nino is like his father is definitively answered here when she catches him fucking the older, overweight hired help. (Notably, he has to do something overtly humiliating to her to finally get her to leave him.) The influence of Donato on Elena’s literary career is also touched on when Donato tries to claim it was his verse that inspired her to write, when it was really what he did to her on the beach that inspired her first book, which led to everything else. Interestingly, it was Nino’s influence that inspired her to finish her second book after a period she’d had great difficulty writing, but when she’s trying to write her next book, he gets in her way, distracting her with the drama of his wife and then the hired help:

I remembered how, when he was our guest in Florence, he had supported me against Pietro, I thought again with pleasure of how he had encouraged me to write. But now? Now that it was crucial for me to seriously get to work, he seemed unable to instill in me the same confidence as before. Things had changed over the years. Nino always had his own urgent needs, and even if he wanted to he couldn’t devote himself to me. To mollify me he had hurried to get, through his mother, a certain Silvana, a massive woman of around fifty…

So, Lila proves to have the upper hand in the Nino situation, in both knowing more about what he’s doing and being better off not to be his lover. Elena next gains power through the success of her third book, which Lila then tries to capitalize on as a vehicle to change the neighborhood. Who’s the more powerful in this dynamic? At this point in the narrative, we’ve lost access to detailed accounts of Lila’s doings when she stops sharing them with Elena, so there’s some speculation involved. It seems that Lila knows a lot that Elena doesn’t about what goes on in the neighborhood; it seems that she’s attempting to use Elena’s power to her own ends, which would theoretically make her the more powerful. It’s when Lila tells Elena she doesn’t need to worry about Carmen and the Solaras’ lawsuit that Elena has a realization:

[] “…Write. The more you write about their disgusting affairs the more you ruin their business.”

I was depressed. Lila thought this? This was her project? Only then did I understand clearly that she ascribed to me the power that as children we had ascribed to the author of Little Women.

The attitude of Elena’s mother, in fact, is a helpful way to gauge how Lila’s power has shifted, as her attitude reflects that of the neighborhood in general. In the period after Lila’s left Stefano and is working at the sausage factory in Book 3, Elena’s mother flips out when Elena hangs out with Lila, who’s considered a “whore.” But after her mother gets sick, she regrets giving most of her family to the Solaras and believes Lila is the only one capable of saving them.

If she had gone so far as to assert that I was the black soul of Lila, and not Lila mine, I must have been a truly intolerable disappointment to her.

Lila is at the height of her power in this period, when she has the influence and capability to threaten the Solaras on a much broader scale than merely holding a shoemaker’s knife to Marcello’s throat (a moment that in hindsight is clearly foreshadowing what’s to come). She has the power to mess with their finances via what she learned working for Michele, and she also threatens Michele’s mental stability by apparently getting him to do things with her male look-alike Alfonso.

While Elena enjoys literary success in this period, it has not come without consequences, and her central internal conflict, writer v. mother, rears its head:

What could I do to keep my life and my children together?

The source of her literary power is also undermined when she reveals that it derives from what amounts to hypocrisy:

Although I now wrote about women’s autonomy and discussed it everywhere, I didn’t know how to live without [Nino’s] body, his voice, his intelligence. It was terrible to confess it, but I still wanted him, I loved him more than my own daughters. At the idea of hurting him and of no longer seeing him I withered painfully, the free and educated woman lost her petals, separated from the woman-mother, and the woman-mother was disconnected from the woman-lover, and the woman-lover from the furious whore, and we all seemed on the point of flying off in different directions.

She also seems to acknowledge that Lila still has the potential to be the more powerful writer:

I felt all the fascination of the way Lila governed the imagination of others or set it free, at will, with just a few words: that speaking, stopping, letting images and emotions go without adding anything else. I’m wrong, I said to myself in confusion, to write as I’ve done until now, recording everything I know. I should write the way she speaks, leave abysses, construct bridges and not finish them, force the reader to establish the flow…

The height of Elena’s literary power seems to coincide with Lila’s—appropriately, according to the divergent paths they’ve taken, Elena’s power derives from literature while Lila’s derives from the neighborhood—so it’s no coincidence that this is when Lila and Elena take on the last project they’ll work on together, the article they hope will undo the Solaras, but then doesn’t. The power of the written word, which Lila has seemed to fervently believe in, is thus called into question. The causal links between the events that follow are murky but present; the next major event after the publication of the article, that culmination and combination of Lila’s and Elena’s power, is the disappearance of Tina. It’s left ambiguous as to whether the Solaras are responsible for this, but it seems unlikely that Michele wouldn’t have followed through on the threat he made at Alfonso’s funeral right before he punched her, in direct response to Lila’s threat:

[] “You two are finished, you’ll have to leave the neighborhood.”

“It’s better if you go, while you still have time.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you dare touch Gennaro, and don’t touch Enzo. Michè, do you understand me? Remember that I know enough to ruin you, you and that other beast.”

“You think you scare me because Lenuccia is always in the newspapers? Is that what you think? That I’m afraid of someone who writes novels? But this here is no one. You, however, you are someone, even your shadow is better than any flesh-and-blood person. But you would never understand, so much the worse for you. I’ll take away everything you have.”

Michele, who derives his power from the neighborhood, as Lila does, considers Lenuccia “no one” and Lina “someone.” (Interestingly, Lila specifically names Enzo and Gennaro here but not Tina; the reference recalls the time Gennaro went missing from school, and though he turned up seemingly unharmed, it seems possibly implied that he might have been given drugs.) But when Michele punches her immediately after this, it would seem to indicate that he is no longer in the place Gigliola once confided he was, in Book 3, to Elena:

[] Lina was the only woman in the world [Michele] loved—love, yes, as in the films—and respected.

“Could he lose his head, do you think, and hurt Lina?”

She uttered a kind exclamation, between a laugh and a cry.

“Him? Lina? Haven’t you seen how he’s behaved all these years? He could hurt me, you, anyone, even his father, his mother, his brother. He could hurt all the people Lina is attached to, her son, Enzo. And he could do it without a qualm, coldly. But to her, her person, he will never do anything.”

Love can fade, as we’ve certainly scene over the course of Book 4. Interestingly, Gigliola seems to predict that if Michele wanted to hurt someone, he might go for their family members; though this prediction is long before Tina is born, it seems to hint that he might be her captor, especially since not long before Tina’s disappearance a scene is dedicated to showing that Michele wants to hurt Lila.

Both the climax of Tina’s disappearance and its logistical execution are, as should be unsurprising by now, pitch perfect, braiding the two threads that have been the grounds of Elena and Lila’s power struggle: the power of the written word, and Nino. Rachel Cusk in the New York Times Book Review claims:

The fate of the women’s two daughters — their mothers’ imagos, the re-enactors of their symbiosis — is, predictably perhaps, entirely symbolic.

While I agree with the first part, I take issue with the claim that Tina’s disappearance is “entirely symbolic,” as it serves a purpose of the plot, arising directly from it, while a claim of “entire symbolism” should technically mean it was heavy-handedly plunked in with no connection to the plot. Of course, if it is the Solaras who took Tina, then they likely would have made it happen at some point or another, but the way it does happen, it’s directly because of Nino’s new fancy car, which he’s taken the girls outside to look at. (Nino has finally, through the cultivation of his female connections, achieved the status symbol the Solaras had in the first book.) Nino is over there in the first place because Lila made Elena worry that Imma wasn’t getting enough attention—and it would seem Lila did believe this if she was holding Imma to show her off and not watching Tina.   

Tina’s death is the culmination of what should theoretically be the continuation of “Middle Time,” though the chapter numbers start over, which should technically make it its own, unnamed section. Like Book 1 only, Book 4 is comprised of two sections. “Old Age” is almost parallel in length to Book 1’s “Childhood.” In order to do this, Ferrante actually has to umbrella under Old Age what might be considered the concluding part or resolution of Middle Time. But having a section break after Tina’s disappearance provides a shift that marks that point as an important climax. She then follows the structural pattern she’s established with such section breaks: leap forward to a point years ahead of the point the previous section ended, provide an overview and/or peek at the future, then circle back, or pull the slingshot back, to cover the period skipped over in detail—that is, pick up at the point where the last section left off. Then the narrative slingshot is fired, and it will eventually catch up to the point of the opening and then move even further forward from there.

For the “Old Age” opening, we leap forward eleven years ahead of when Tina disappeared in 1984, to the moment Elena finally leaves the neighborhood and Naples, in 1995; this would seem to be the point old age starts for her. She also drops the bomb that Lila stopped talking to her after she published a book about what happened to Tina. The same thing that enables her to regain the power of her literary reputation severs her connection with Lila.

After Tina’s disappearance, Lila loses the power she derived from the neighborhood, and Elena continues to live there despite her continued literary career. She’s also gotten to keep all of her daughters, despite the problems they have, so in this period she would seem to have the upper hand. Lila undermines it with her near-climactic revelation right before Elena finally leaves the neighborhood—another manifestation of her continued power—that Tina might have disappeared because of the mistaken caption in the paper, continuing the theme of the power of the written word. Lila implies that Tina might have been taken because of what was supposed to be Elena’s source of power, her success.

Elena’s power in the extended period of her literary career is further undermined by Lila’s research about the city. Once she loses her power in the neighborhood, she expands her scope to encompass all of Naples by studying its history. She would seem to know more context than anyone else about the place they came from. Elena isn’t threatened by this knowledge in and of itself, but by the possibility that it could secure Lila a literary reputation that would outstrip her own. Her daughters’ holiday visit one year when they read some of her past passages out loud confirms for her that despite her success at the time, she has not created anything of last value. Elena seems to realize that Lila is capable of creating something that would be, even if she never actually gets her own work published. Elena has not lived up to the opportunity she got that Lila didn’t.

And, finally, with the appearance of the dolls at the end, Lila would seem to be the winner of this power struggle. She is the mastermind and the manipulator.

Here’s what she had done: she had deceived me, she had dragged me wherever she wanted, from the beginning of our friendship. All our lives she had told a story of redemption that was hers, using my living body and my existence.

This would seem to be appropriate revenge on Elena, who took so much inspiration from Lila, from The Blue Fairy to the ideas she used during her college entrance exam to what Lila did to Alfonso to the connection between Manuela Solara’s and Don Achille’s deaths to Tina’s disappearance. Of course, Lila’s appropriation would technically have occurred before Elena’s, though we learn of it later, complicating who exactly deserves what. But when Elena tries to use her power, her writing, to describe Lila’s fall from power via Tina’s disappearance, she loses access to the power struggle altogether.

It’s interesting that before Elena gets the package with the dolls, she specifically notes that it might have been the connection she drew between the lost dolls and lost daughter in her book that Lila found so offensive. The revelation that the dolls were never actually lost, then, has interesting implications for the lost daughter, perhaps implicating Lila more directly in that disappearance—not that she lost her on purpose, but that her actions caused the disappearance—namely her actions toward the Solaras.

We feel the grief of the lost intimacy between Elena and Lila when we start getting less access to what’s going on with Lila. In Book 1, the pair is fairly intimate, always proximate; in Book 2, the device of the notebooks allows Ferrante to develop Lila as a character free of the constraints of Elena’s perceptions; in Book 3, Lila’s night-long confession to Elena the night she quits the factory provides a wealth of vivid detail that in Book 4 conspicuously, and painfully, fades away. The loss of access means we have many unanswered questions. Was Lila involved in Bruno Soccavo’s death? Did the Solaras take Tina? Did Lila or Enzo have anything to do with the Solaras’ deaths?

The lack of answers contributes to the ongoing theme of order v. chaos:

…sometimes [Enzo] was ashamed at having to transform the filth of exploitation into the tidiness of programming. Lila, for her part, said that to obtain that tidiness the bosses had been forced to show her all their dirt close up, and she spoke sarcastically about the duplicity, the tricks, the scams that were behind the façade of orderly accounts.

and:

[Lila] had explicitly forbidden me not only to write about her but also to use persons and episodes of the neighborhood. When I had, she always found a way of telling me—even if painfully—that the book was bad, that either one is capable of telling things just as they happened, in teeming chaos, or one works from imagination, inventing a thread, and I had been able to do neither the first thing nor the second.

Not coincidentally, when Lila finally shares her experience of “dissolving boundaries” with Elena during the earthquake, the idea of “threads” figures prominently:

“Take Alfonso, he’s always made me nervous, ever since he was a boy, I’ve felt that the cotton thread that held him together was about to break. And Michele? Michele thought he was who knows what, and yet all I had to do was find his boundary line and pull, oh, oh, oh, I broke it, I broke his cotton thread and tangled it with Alfonso’s, male material inside male material, the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the head finds a way.”

While Lila killing the Solaras would indicate power, the same day they’re killed, she’s hospitalized, putting an emphasis on her weakness, perhaps implying that she was not in fact powerful enough to get rid of the Solaras: 

And above all I had to tend to Lila, who that same Sunday was suddenly torn from the neighborhood, from her son, from Enzo, from her job, and ended up in the hands of the doctors, because she was weak, she saw things that seemed real but weren’t, she was losing blood. They discovered a fibromatous uterus, they operated and took it out. Once—she was still in the hospital—she woke suddenly, exclaimed that Tina had come out of her belly again and now was taking revenge on everyone, even on her. For a fraction of a second she was sure that the killer of the Solaras was her daughter. (Emphasis mine)

It’s no coincidence that the earthquake that shakes the city (thematically reinforcing the tenuous foundations of everything, specifically the tenuous foundation of Don Achille’s money) happens just as Lila’s describing something with the power to collapse their neighborhood—the fact that the Solaras have been bringing drugs into it. The earthquake also reveals her mental instability, her problem with boundaries, that also reared its head when she was trying to fight the terrible conditions at the sausage factory. The places her mind goes to when confronted with such extreme stress seem to be the manifestation of her intense intelligence. 

With the drug trafficking, the neighborhood is shown to be a corrosive force, a perilous place, but on the other hand, Elena’s distancing herself from the neighborhood is shown to be potentially harmful when the onset of her mother’s decline happens in Elena’s apartment on Via Tasso, about which Lila says: 

“You insist on staying up here, it’s hard to get here.”

Not long after Lila declares this, Elena’s mother starts dripping blood; there’s an implication that the length she had to go to to get to Elena on Via Tasso caused this harm. Notably, the Via Tasso neighborhood overlooks the one she grew up in and where Lila still lives, while when Elena finally does move all the way back, she takes up residence in the apartment above Lila’s. This positioning of herself over Lila would seem not to be a symbol of her actually being better than Lila as of her trying to be.

Clever as she’s shown to be, we definitely know Lila is capable of miscalculating—her marriage to Stefano proves that, leads to her realization in Book 2 after their honeymoon:

“You remember that Don Achille gave us money instead of the dolls?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“We shouldn’t have taken it.”

“We bought Little Women.”

“We were wrong: ever since that moment I’ve been wrong about everything.”

Lila seems, ultimately, to have made a miscalculation in her ability to take on the Solaras, judging by what happens to Tina. The question is, was it worth it, and/or the right/smart thing to do? She was, after all, taking them on out of an interest for Tina’s well-being:

“I gave Gennaro what was possible, but it went badly.”

“It’s the fault of the neighborhood.”

She looked at me gravely, she said:

“I don’t have much faith in it, but since you’ve decided to stay here with us, let’s change the neighborhood.”

Here, Lila’s decision to take on the Solaras is directly linked to Elena’s decision to stay in the neighborhood. (But we can’t forget why Elena was finally willing to go back to Naples in the first place—not for Lila, but for Nino.) But by trying to save Tina from the clutches of the neighborhood, it seems Lila might have ended up tossing Tina directly into them—just like she did as a child with the dolls. By showing Elena the dolls at the end, it seems possible she’s admitting to some kind of miscalculation with that deception also—admitting, perhaps, that it’s really Elena who wins the power struggle.

Elena says in the final line that she’s resigned herself to not seeing Lila anymore. This is the price she’s paid for what she took from her, writing about her life, being inspired by her, doing what she didn’t have the opportunity to do and could have done better. With the friendship lost, nobody wins here really. That Lila has not inserted herself into Elena’s pages, which might ostensibly be a threat to Elena’s source of power, actually disappoints Elena; the fact that Lila did actually show up, as evidenced by the dolls, but still didn’t touch the pages subtly accentuates this disappointment. The account in these four books is Elena’s alone; it is not a collaboration. The power does not find a balance. It’s a bittersweet ending indeed. Such is life.

-SCR  

(image credit: Emiliano Ponzi)

Blackwell v. Bush

Knowing nothing but Curtis Sittenfeld’s name, I initially assumed she was a man. (Her full name apparently being Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld, one wonders if using her male-sounding middle name was to overcome publishers’ implicit biases against women.) In her third novel, American Wife (2008), Sittenfeld boldly tackles the first-person perspective of a First Lady based on the figure of Laura Bush. Sittenfeld’s First Lady is named Alice Lindgren, and only the final of the book’s four parts takes place after she’s become First Lady.

Part I: 1272 Amity Lane:
The first part of the novel describes Alice Lindgren’s childhood, growing up middle-class in the small town of Riley, Wisconsin. She’s very close with her father’s mother, who lives with them. Her grandmother goes to visit her close friend, Dr. Gladys Wycomb, in Chicago, twice a year. When Alice is a teenager, her grandmother takes her on one of these trips with her to see the city, and one night when Gladys and her grandmother set her up on a date with someone, she ends up getting sick and coming home early, catching her grandmother and Dr. Wycomb kissing, though they don’t know she saw them.

Back at school, she has a crush on Andrew Imhof, whom her best friend Dena dated for four years (but whom Dena pretty much originally stole from Alice in the first place). They get in a fight about it, causing Alice to drive by herself instead of with Dena to a party where she’s meeting Andrew, when she ends up getting in a collision with Andrew himself, killing him. In her grief, she goes to the Imhofs’ farm to apologize, and only Andrew’s brother Pete is there, whom she ends up sleeping with several times until he eventually coerces her to give him a blow job, then calls her a “whore” for doing so. She ends up pregnant, and her grandmother, without telling her parents, arranges for Dr. Wycomb to give her an abortion.

Part II: 3859 Sproule Street:
The second section jumps ahead to when Alice is 31, working as a librarian at an elementary school in Madison. She’s still friends with Dena, who, one summer when Alice is making papier-mâché characters of children’s book characters to decorate the school library with, forces her to come to a party where Charlie Blackwell will be. Charlie is the son of the former governor of Wisconsin, loaded from the family business (Blackwell Meats), and gearing up for his own run for Congress. Charlie’s uninterested in Dena and is instead taken with Alice, whom he first meets at the party when he comes upon her reading a children’s book to someone’s kid. She turns down his request for a date, but he follows her home, ends up coming in, and loves her papier-mâché characters, which no one else has seen, and they end up talking, connecting, and making out. Because of Dena, Alice is still reluctant to date him, but he invites her to a speech he’s making, where she meets Hank, the force channeling Charlie’s charisma into a viable political career. Then they do start dating. When Alice tells Dena, Dena’s so angry she won’t be her friend anymore, thinking the situation is a repeat of when Alice liked Andrew after he broke up with her.

The day before she met Charlie, Alice bought a house, but then she finds out her mother lost twenty grand when she invested it with none other than Pete Imhof, who simply claims the deal went bad when Alice confronts him. Her mother gives her a family brooch to sell to recoup some of the money, but when it’s appraised at a mere $90, Alice backs out of buying her house and gives her mother the money for the down payment (seven grand), claiming that’s how much she got for the brooch.

After she and Charlie have been dating six weeks, there’s a bad storm that Charlie drives to her apartment in, and they decide they should get married. She goes with him to meet his family at the fancy Halcyon compound, an enormous but strangely shabby place where the massive difference between their upbringings finally hits home. Late in the trip it emerges that they’re engaged, to which Priscilla Blackwell responds “‘What a clever girl you are.’” They get married with a small ceremony. Her grandmother is happy to hear Priscilla Blackwell might not approve of her. After Charlie loses his Congressional race, they move to a house outside Milwaukee.

Part III: 402 Maronee Drive:
One night when their daughter Ella is nine, Charlie doesn’t come home from work at Blackwell Meats when they’re supposed to go to a play, and when Alice goes to his parents’ house to look for him she ends up inviting their servant Miss Ruby to go with her. Charlie’s been discontent lately, having disagreements with his brothers at work, tense about his upcoming 20th reunion at Princeton. When she gets home from the play, Charlie is home, upset about some tainted meat their company might be responsible for; he wants to quit. He’s always talking about his legacy, which Alice hates. She meets up with her sister-in-law Jadey, who talks about wanting to have an affair. Then her grandmother goes into a coma; when she wakes up, Alice confides that she’s worried about Charlie’s drinking and his mid-life crisis. At a Blackwell dinner, Priscilla reprimands her for taking Miss Ruby out to the play. Her grandmother dies; at the funeral Dena’s mother tells her Dena is dating Pete Imhof. Charlie comes home one night and announces he’s gone in with an investment group who’s buying the Brewers. Alice has Miss Ruby and her family over for lunch, which Charlie interrupts, drunk. At the end-of-the-school year party at their house, a daughter of some friends finds Charlie’s porn magazines. The Brewers deal is finalized that night, and when Alice says she doesn’t want to go out to celebrate because they need to pack for the Princeton reunion the next day, he takes their babysitter out drinking and he and Alice have a big fight before leaving. At Princeton, Charlie drinks a lot and, after Alice finds out he’s done cocaine, she kisses their friend Joe Thayer, but stops when it’s not as pleasurable as she imagined. Back at home, she tells Charlie she wants a trial separation and takes Ella with her to her mother’s in Riley for a few weeks. While there, she has a phone conversation with Priscilla in which she learns everyone thinks Charlie is incompetent, and that Priscilla always wondered why she married Charlie, not the other way around, as Alice had always assumed. A mysterious lady Alice suspects is Dena gives Ella a plastic tiara. Ella and Alice are about to meet Charlie for a picnic when his brother calls and says Charlie got a DUI.

Alice doesn’t talk to Charlie for awhile, and then Jadey tells her he’s befriended a minister. When he does call, he says he’s paid for Jessica Sutton, Miss Ruby’s daughter, to go to Ella’s fancy school, and he’s started running. Alice talks to Ella about Andrew Imhof’s death. When Alice learns that Charlie’s been having Miss Ruby stay with him at his parents’ Milwaukee house, she finally caves and goes home, visiting Charlie at his office at the baseball stadium, where he shocks her by revealing he’s been born again and stopped drinking. Things go well for the next few years, and then Charlie successfully runs for governor, and then president, based largely on his religious appeal. Alice isn’t crazy about the religious stuff, but realizes he couldn’t have quit drinking without it (and some people believe she’s responsible for his being President due to causing him to quit drinking via leaving him). Jessica Sutton will become Alice’s chief of staff.  

Part IV: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
One morning when Charlie and Alice first wake up and read the newspapers per their usual routine, they discuss Edgar Franklin, a protester of the Iraq War who’s gotten a lot of press since his son died in combat; he’s demanding to talk to the President, but so far Charlie has refused. Alice has refrained from interfering in Charlie’s administration not out of a belief that she should so much as being uncertain what the best course of action actually is, and she believes his reasons for invading Iraq are more complex than people make them seem. She was relieved when it looked like he was going to lose the presidential election, but now it’s four years after the invasion, nineteen months from the end of his administration. As she’s off for her day of First-Lady errands, Hank tells her that someone is claiming she had an abortion in October of ‘63; Alice thinks at first it must be Dena, but it turns out to be Gladys Wycomb, who’s 104. She wants Alice to convince Charlie not to go through with a pro-life Supreme Court nominee. Alice, who has publicly admitted to being pro-choice twice, without any elaboration, goes and talks to Gladys, trying to explain she doesn’t have that kind of influence. But Gladys will have none of it, and tells Alice off to her face, more than anyone ever has, for simply standing by.

Now that 31-year-old Jessica is Alice’s closest friend, Alice stops to see Dena, who lives with Pete Imhof; both are friendly (it was Dena who gave Ella the tiara) and, despite having had opportunities, neither have any inclination to talk to the media about her, which surprises Alice (many acquaintances have talked about her publicly, but the press has still not gotten much personal material on her). She can’t believe it’s possible that she really hasn’t done enough to stop all the carnage in the war, and wishes she didn’t have the pressure of the potential opportunity to do more; many people have written about her not having done enough to influence her husband. On the way home, she gets a call from Hank that Gladys Wycomb died, neutralizing the threat that her abortion will be revealed. Alice remembers how Charlie ended up picking the vice presidential candidate she was leaning toward over Hank’s pick and worries she’s at fault for the potential carnage caused by the VP’s influence, that Charlie won’t back out of the war because of how influential the VP has been, and that he’s foolish for not doing so.

Alice then declares she wants to talk to Edgar Franklin. He gets in her limo with her and eventually she agrees with him outright, saying she thinks it’s time to end the war and bring the troops home. We get a flashback to the night of the 2000 presidential election that ended up in the air, with Charlie believing he lost and admitting to her he was relieved to not have to do the work (he also wants to not finish the gubernatorial term he’d have to go back to). When she talks to Charlie on the phone, he is very angry about how she contradicted his position publicly with Edgar Franklin. They have to sit through a gala in her honor together that Ella, a Princeton graduate and Manhattan investment banker, comes for; Ella steadfastly agrees with her father’s position about the necessity of continuing the war. Afterward, Alice eats with Ella and debates whether it’s right to tell Ella about the abortion (Ella’s Christian like her father), and decides it would only make her imagine possible siblings, so she doesn’t.

After reading for awhile, Alice remembers that Pete Imhof gave her an envelope and sees it’s the apology note she went to the Imhof farm to give them, along with the pendant she’d left with it because Andrew had liked it. She finally talks to Charlie, who thinks she’s made him a laughingstock, and they end up having a more honest talk than they have since he’s been President about its difficulties, like the divergence in their beliefs. She says she’s only now figured out what she’s done wrong as First Lady. He insists, though not angrily anymore, that she’s not responsible for the casualties in the war. She knows she could have done more but that she’s married a man who would not “even be aware of [her] failings,” and that Charlie will forgive her if she doesn’t make a habit of acting that way.

That night, she dreams of Andrew Imhof, but instead of the one she always has where they are separated in a crowded room, this time they find each other, and she knows she could have had a life with him. She loves Charlie, but didn’t actually vote for him for President, and sometimes she thinks that she only married him—she’s not the one who gave him power. She’ll keep her vote against him a secret for now. The End.  

The four parts and their dramatic threads can be broken down more succinctly thus:
Part I: Alice’s childhood and adolescence: her grandmother’s relationship with Gladys Wycomb, Andrew Imhof’s death, and Alice’s abortion.
Part II: Alice’s meeting and courtship with Charlie and break with childhood best friend Dena.
Part III: Alice temporarily leaves Charlie, causing him to quit drinking and, indirectly, to undertake his ambitious political rise.
Part IV: A day in Charlie’s presidency: Gladys Wycomb threatens to out Alice’s abortion but then dies, Alice reconnects with Dena, and she breaks her promise to Charlie by publicly contradicting his beliefs.            

In a narrative that skips large chunks of time, Sittenfeld imbues tension in the overall arc by compressing the final section—the actual First Lady section—into a single day. The three preceding sections are spread out over longer periods of time. All four sections have, as they should, discrete narrative arcs, and by having the events covered in the first section (her abortion and everything that leads up to it) come directly into play in the final section, the discrete arcs become interlocking. (Before coming into play directly, the events of the first section come indirectly into play in the second section when Alice confesses them to Charlie to cross their final frontier of intimacy, and in the third when Charlie’s throwing them in her face shows how unbearable his discontent has made him to live with.) The first part’s events also come back in the fourth when Alice compares the tragedy of Andrew Imhof’s death, a death she caused, to the tragedy of the lives lost in the war, calling into question her culpability in the latter:

And yet if Andrew Imhof’s death was the singular tragedy of my life, if in some ways I have lived since then trying to compensate for my error, trying to be worthy of having survived—if his death was the worst thing I could have imagined, then what words are there, what space in my imagination, for the deaths of thousands of American troops and foreign civilians? If my critics are right that I share responsibility for Charlie’s administrative policies, including the decision to go to war, then Andrew Imhof’s death is the least of what I have caused; it is nothing, and utterly insignificant. What if I believed the consequences of the war were also my fault?

If the blood of these people were on my hands, if there were something I personally could have done to prevent such carnage, the loss of so many adults and teenagers and children who presumably wanted, just as I always have, to live an ordinary life—if I believed I could have made a difference but instead remained silent, then how could I bear it?

A big part of the conflict in the final section derives from Alice’s internal debate of how responsible she is for these lives. That she’s asking these questions at all makes her sympathetic; her conclusion might be more questionable. In the passage above, Alice seems to do something along the lines of acknowledging that she can’t face acknowledging her responsibility for these deaths, which would mean implicit acknowledgment that she is, in fact, responsible for them. But that Sittenfeld aptly captures intricate psychological maneuvers at work doesn’t mean she’s written a delusional, unlikable character here; quite the opposite. We won’t read Alice as unreliable because of how closely she’s examined the painful details of her past—if she was going to gloss over things, she’d need a lot more gloss. The primary evidence of this lack of gloss for me is the description of her sexual interlude with Pete Imhof. (Sittenfeld writes with a balder honesty about sex from the female perspective than pretty much any writer I’ve encountered; she’s like the antidote to Updike.) And so I sympathized with Alice’s inability to acknowledge the weight of what she’d done—or rather, hadn’t done—rather than meeting it with liberal scorn.

In terms of pacing, the first section covers the longest span of time (all of childhood and adolescence), while the second two seem to cover comparable spans of periods of several weeks (her courtship with Charlie and the period she leaves him, respectively) and then the final one shrinks to a single day. In Part I, we learn first that Alice’s grandmother has a secret relationship with Gladys Wycomb. Then, after Andrew’s death, she ends up with her own secret: the abortion. That Gladys Wycomb is the one to perform this abortion is the perfect intertwining of her and the grandmother’s secrets, and that intertwining the perfect resolution for first arc. In Part II, the courtship, the conflict is Alice reckoning with the divergence in her and Charlie’s upbringings, offering the final point of contrast before her life weaves away from ordinary. In Part III, we open in a scene on a day Charlie’s discontent with his job hits the fan, the same day, it so happens, that Alice makes a gesture toward Miss Ruby of the servant Sutton family that leads to her increasing influence over Jessica Sutton’s fate. We end with Charlie’s decision to stop drinking, the family reunited. In Part IV, the day we get, we get from beginning to end: from Alice’s waking up and reading the news with Charlie (discussing precisely the story she’ll end up interfering with later in the day) to the climactic fight she has with him at day’s end; the day is bookended with them physically together, and progresses through a series of more and less confrontational meetings: with Gladys Wycomb, with Dena and Pete, with Edgar Franklin, with Ella, and finally with Charlie himself as she confronts the burden of the role she’s been thrust into.  

Through the figure of Dena, Sittenfeld shows in a concrete way what Alice has lost by being with Charlie and entering his upper-class world: a connection to her more ordinary roots. In the final section, Alice’s reconnecting with Dena would then seem to indicate that she’s retaken something of her former self, thus providing a concrete impetus for her to realize, on this day of all days, that she could be acting differently as First Lady.

Aside from varying the time spans in the different parts, another way Sittenfeld imbues tension in such a long-ranging narrative is using the retrospective perspective to mention future events that pique the reader’s interest, and by contrasting the quaintness of past times with what we know is to come, like when she observes the meager crowds at the events for Charlie’s early Congressional run. By the fourth part, this perspective allows her to give us flashbacks of scenes that didn’t happen on the one day the part’s occurring.

Sittenfeld has used a lot of historical detail here, but at the same time she’s changed some basics: the Blackwells being from Wisconsin instead of Texas, into meats instead of oil, alums of Princeton instead of Yale. Another instance is the car wreck that kills Andrew Imhof—Laura Bush really did get in a car accident when she was seventeen that killed one of her classmates, though she was not alone in the car as Alice is in the novel. But there has been speculation about whether the classmate Laura Bush killed was her boyfriend or just a “close friend,” and Sittenfeld takes maximum dramatic advantage of this possibility with a powerful throughline and ending: the alternate life Alice might have had with Andrew. In real life, Laura Bush may or may not have become First Lady if she hadn’t gotten in that fatal accident; in Sittenfeld’s narrative it seems highly likely, especially with the conclusion, that Alice would have married Andrew if he hadn’t died, and led a happy ordinary life. We’re left to wonder about a chain of impacts and consequences that no doubt does have its parallel manifestation in the real world: if Alice marries Andrew and doesn’t marry Charlie, perhaps then Charlie is never driven to quit drinking and become President, and the Iraq War doesn’t happen, and then god knows where we’d be today…

Sittenfeld’s treatment of Alice is like a reading-between-the-lines of fawning biographies and news stories; Laura Bush is quoted as saying the accident when she was 17 caused her to lose her faith “for many, many years”; in Sittenfeld’s story, she’s never regained her faith, but the populace assumes she shares her husband’s. Her beliefs diverge from her husband’s much more significantly than her husband’s campaign team will ever allow to be revealed. Sittenfeld’s taken a pile of material with a dearth of substance and revealed a story behind that lack of substance that, though it can never be verified, seems entirely plausible.

A couple of glaring adjustments to the historical record here are that Charlie’s father himself was never President, and that Alice and Charlie only have one daughter. The conflict with this daughter in the novel is not that she’s a rebellious seeker of pleasure, as per the reputation of the Bush twins, but rather that Alice ends up producing a carbon copy of Charlie from whom privilege has eradicated any capacity for empathy. Fortunately, Alice has established for herself a liberal surrogate daughter in Jessica Sutton, as Ella calls her out for toward the novel’s end:

“No, I’m totally not threatened by this woman who’s close to my own age, who you spend all your time with and like better than me. Not one little bit!”

In this regard it seems like Alice almost gets to have her cake and eat it too; her relationship with Ella seems warm despite Alice’s reliance on Jessica and the divergence in their beliefs. This feels similar to her conclusion about whether she’s done enough as First Lady, how culpable she is for the war casualties. 

It seems possible that the change from meat to oil for the Bush-based clan could have been inspired by a famous Texas Ranger, Nolan Ryan, of the baseball team that George W. actually owned, now running Nolan Ryan’s Beef. And while she didn’t make the George H.W. stand-in a President, she does seem to capture a realistic characteristic of his in his “sentimental streak,” though Alice’s attitude toward it is one of the ways her perspective seems conveniently myopic:

…there was nothing else in the world as endearing to me as Harold Blackwell’s sentimental streak. It was enough to make me wonder if there were other elected officials I was as wrong about as I’d been about him. Were there men (and it would be primarily men) who, instead of creating personas that were fakely righteous and honorable, were the opposite: fakely cruel, fakely callous? Men who, through the distortion of the media or a perceived pressure to act a certain way, sublimated, at least in public, their own decency and kindness?

The juvenile competitive spirit Sittenfeld captures among the Blackwell brothers also rings entirely true and provides some critical insight into the general nature of politicians, driven to prestigious roles out of a petty desire to prove themselves and be perceived as better than others rather than to actually help others. The Blackwell brothers try to one-up one another about stupid, irrelevant things; this is the nature of the stubbornness and determination that takes them so far. The Halcyon compound that is their pride and joy also has an interesting detail: it only has one toilet, which doesn’t work very well, to accommodate eighteen people, a fact the Blackwells take perverse pride in. This seems potentially symbolic of an old world order crumbling, falling apart; despite George H.W. referring to the “new world order” ushered in during his presidency, political nepotism is hardly new, and hardly eradicated.

The current presidential era would seem to indicate that now more than ever we need the female perspective in politics. Ultimately Alice’s judgment of her husband, though tempered, seems to be that he wasn’t worthy of the job in the first place, and that he’s done significant damage in the role. There’s something somewhat disheartening about her apparent conclusion that she should have done more, but that really, she can’t. But she has at least borne witness to his foolishness, especially when she compares his insistence on continuing the war to the time she tried to use the restroom in an unfamiliar country club, walked past it, but didn’t turn around when she realized her mistake for fear of revealing to others that she was ignorant and didn’t belong there.

Alice, it seems, becomes the symbol for all American wives, not just ones married to Presidents—positioned to form the most accurate perspective on their husbands, sometimes able to influence them, perhaps, more often, not. Her realization at the end that she has sacrificed her ideals and loved someone else all along might symbolize that ultimately all wives wind up in a position they don’t really want to be in—subservient, identities subsumed. In her review of the novel for the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates begins by asking “Is there a distinctly American experience?” and concludes that the novel shows how “[t]he ideal American wife can only retreat into a kind of female solace of opacity.” 

-SCR 

Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Book 1 of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend, first covers Lila and Lenù’s childhood, which culminates in the decision that defines the diverging paths their lives take: Elena getting to advance to middle school while Lila goes to work for her family in the shoe shop. It then covers adolescence, which involves Elena’s relationship with Antonio and culminates with Lila’s wedding at the age of sixteen to the wealthy neighborhood grocer Stefano Caracci.

Book 2, The Story of a New Name, covers the struggles in Lila’s marriage, her affair with Nino Sarratore, having his son (or so she believes) before leaving Stefano and moving into an apartment in a poor neighborhood with Enzo and going to work at a salami factory while Nino vanishes. Concurrently, Elena graduates from college, has a novel published, and is about to get married to the son of an important well-connected family.

Book 3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, begins with another leap ahead in time, this time to the last time Elena saw Lila, in 2005, when they come upon a crowd looking at a dead body that turns out to be Michele’s “ex-wife,” Gigliola Spagnuolo. Lila tells Lenù never to write about her, Lila, and that if she does, she’ll find the files on her computer and delete them.

We then pick up from Book 2’s end with Nino’s appearance at Elena’s first reading for her novel at the bookstore in Milan. After Elena signs some books, Adele invites Nino to dinner with them—with her and Elena and her assistant Tarratano—and he accepts. On the way, he makes a comment to Elena that Lila “was made badly…even when it comes to sex.” Elena is contemplating seducing him when Adele announces she has a surprise: Pietro has come, and has accepted a job as a professor in Florence, where they’ll move. Elena encounters both good and bad reviews of her book; people keep focusing on “the dirty pages” and she realizes that’s the main reason the book is selling well. She travels to give more readings and Adele sends Tarratano with her, who encourages her not to be apologetic about the book’s risqué passages, shortly before he creepily tries to sleep with her.

At a university in Milan, Elena ends up skipping her reading after following some students to some sort of demonstration, and she sees a girl there nursing her baby, then runs into her old boyfriend Franco Mari, then Pietro’s sister Mariarosa, who invites her to stay with her, which Elena accepts. Sylvia, the girl with the baby, also lives with Mariarosa, along with an older painter. They discuss revolution and Elena finds out Silvia’s baby, whom she feels surprisingly maternal toward, is Nino’s. Franco insults her novel as frivolous for the times. That night she is disgusted when the older painter tries to sleep with her. Back in Naples, Pietro comes to meet her parents, who are angry about his decision to not get married in the church and only have a civil ceremony, but the visit is relatively successful and her family takes to Pietro. They even go out to eat at a restaurant, where her brothers start a fight with a table of people they think are making fun of the way Pietro looks.

Adele helps get them an apartment in Florence and some new clothes. Pasquale and Enzo show up outside her parents’ place one night and say Lila wants to see her. At her apartment outside the neighborhood, Lila receives Elena and recounts what she’s been going through at the salami factory since she burned The Blue Fairy in the courtyard bonfire at the end of Book 2. She’s been anxious and having trouble sleeping. She helps Enzo (whom she’s not sleeping with) study for a correspondence course related to computers. The men she works with at the factory grope and harass her, but when she goes to Bruno to complain, he tells her not to make trouble for him. Then, a bit later, he comes on to her, but she manages to rebuff him. She does computer diagrams with Enzo but won’t tell him of the bad conditions at her job. Then Pasquale starts hanging out with them regularly and telling them about his Communist activities fighting the Fascists, who are headed in the old neighborhood by Gino, the pharmacist’s son.

One day Pasquale brings Lila’s mother Nunzia over, but it doesn’t go well, Nunzia blaming Lila for the family’s downfall. Pasquale gets Lila to go to a couple of Communist meetings, at one of which is Nadia, Professor Galiani’s daughter. She convinces Lila to speak, and Lila tells everyone in vivid detail about the horrible conditions at the salami factory. A few days later, someone from the meeting is outside the gates at the factory and gives Lila a pamphlet with everything she described at the meeting written up in it. She denies her involvement to her coworkers and to Bruno, but gets harassed by the guard Filippo. Her conditions at work worsen and her heart starts pounding in her throat and she starts seeing figures and feels her mind collapsing. Then Gino and the fascists show up to beat up the communists outside the factory gate and Gino recognizes her.

Unable to find Pasquale, Lila goes to Professor Galiani’s to find Nadia to tell them to stop their activities. She talks to the professor awhile before Nadia shows up with Pasquale. Gino and the fascists show up at the gate again and just as Gino is about to beat Lila up, Pasquale pulls up and intervenes. A small group of people at the factory get together with Lila and make a list of demands to improve their working conditions. At a meeting with Nadia and Pasquale, Lila’s dissolving sickness comes on and Armando (a doctor) examines her and says she has a murmur and needs to see a cardiologist, but she refuses. That night, afraid of what her mind will do while she’s alone, she asks to sleep with Enzo.

The next day, when Lila goes to take Bruno the list of demands, Michele Solara is in his office. He tells her about the neighborhood and about how they’ve expanded and now Stefano’s practically ruined. He goes on about all the impressive stuff Lila’s done before making some crude remarks about her character that induce her to try to attack him; he says she doesn’t work for Saccavo, she works for him, since Saccavo is in debt to the Solaras. Bruno calls her back in after he’s seen the list of demands to yell at her, and she quits. That’s when she sent Enzo and Pasquale for Elena. They talk about sex, Lila saying it was always unpleasant for her and Elena saying it’s not like that for her, and Lila referencing Elena’s book for the first time, saying it must be like that for her if she wrote those things. Lila says she wants to move back to the old neighborhood.

Before Elena leaves for Florence to get married, she tries to do everything she can for Lila, including getting her to a cardiologist, who says she’s fine but might need a neurologist, who says her body needs rest, and then they both go get birth control pills. Elena also gets Pietro to get a lawyer to get Bruno to pay Lila what he owes her, and a potential job connection for Enzo who turns out to be impressed by the diagramming Lila made him do. Adele convinces Elena to write a newspaper article about the factory conditions that’s well received. Elena finds an apartment for Lila in the neighborhood and finds out Michele is moving to a richer one, which she thinks bodes well. She goes to try to talk to him at his house but only Gigliola is there, who winds up opening up to her about how Michele sleeps around and mistreats her and how he’s always been in love with Lila. Then Elena goes to see Alfonso, who’s managing the fancy shoe shop for the Solaras that Lila used to; he tells her he’s marrying Marisa, who’s pregnant, because Michele wants him to—but that he’s actually queer.

Back in the neighborhood, Lila and Elena run into all the people they know, including Melina, who is watching Stefano’s daughter that he had with Ada (Melina’s daughter). Melina remarks that Gennaro looks just like Ada’s daughter and that they both look just like Stefano; Lila realizes it’s true and that Gennaro isn’t Nino’s. Elena goes to say goodbye to Professor Galiani, who tells her to bring Lila, and there they run into Nadia and Pasquale, who give Elena shit for helping Lila out with her bourgeois connections and abandoning everyone else involved in the struggle. Galiani finally arrives and is rude to Elena but praises Lila. When they part, Lila tells Elena she expects great things from her and loves her, but Elena is bitter about how she seems ungrateful for what she did for her, and how she still feels inferior to her, and secretly wishes Lila would become ill and die.

For years after Elena leaves Naples, she and Lila only talk on the phone. Elena marries Pietro, whom she thought would be okay waiting to have children so she can write, but he isn’t, and she becomes pregnant the first night they’re married—the first night they sleep together, during which Elena discovers that sex with him is painful and unsatisfying. Lila calls after she hears from Elena’s mother that she’s pregnant and says she thought Elena was on the Pill so she could write her book; Lila says she never wants to be pregnant again (“she seemed ready to consider any possible joy I found in motherhood a betrayal”). When Elena wins a prize for her book, Lila insults a pompous quote from her speech that appeared in the paper. The pregnancy goes well until Elena gets a pain in her buttocks that makes her start to limp (like her mother!). After the birth, when she tells Lila it was wonderful, Lila responds, “‘Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.’”

The baby, Adele, or Dede, won’t breastfeed or sleep well, and Pietro is utterly unhelpful, staying in his study until late. Lila calls at the moments Elena’s “particularly desperate” and Elena lies and acts like everything is fine, though she wants to yell at Lila for cursing her. As things deteriorate, Pietro finally gets Adele to come, who hires Clelia to help, against Pietro’s wishes. He takes his mounting frustrations at the university, where he’s not respected, out on his mother and tells his wife nothing. She realizes Pietro is considered dull, agrees with that assessment, and won’t sleep with him because she doesn’t want to get pregnant again. He makes an effort and brings some guests home to dinner that she flirts with and then even starts meeting with one (Mario), and Dede, though only two years old, threatens to tell Pietro. She can’t get her writing going again and considers marriage a prison and finds Pietro’s sister Mariarosa’s liberated tendencies enthralling. Eventually she starts messing around with Mario, but when he tries to get her to give him a blow job, she rushes home and makes love with Pietro and gets pregnant again.

She calls her mother and gets her to come help, and starts calling Lila every day to get her imagination going for her writing. Lila’s most enthusiastic subject is Enzo’s work with computers, and she’s gotten hired on to work as his assistant at IBM, trying to make the machine do things people do by punching diagrams of holes in cards. She says they’re rich now. She reports beatings in the neighborhood between the communists and fascists and speculates that Manuela Solara (Michele and Marcello’s mother) is the one who murdered Don Achille because she had the most to gain, taking over his loan shark business when he died. Elena tries to write that story as a novel, and to it finish before the baby is born. When she finally sends the manuscript to Adele, her mother-in-law calls and tells her it isn’t publishable the same day Elena later goes into labor. She then calls Lila and asks her to read the manuscript without mentioning the birth. Her mother leaves and Elena fires Clelia. Lila calls after reading the manuscript saying that she doesn’t know how to read books anymore, and when Elena demands she be honest, Lila starts sobbing and says it’s an ugly book and the first one was too and they aren’t her.

Abandoning the manuscript, Elena devotes herself to motherhood; the first baby prepared her, and the second baby, named Elsa after her sister Elise (instead of after her mother, which is part of why her mother left), is good—but she goes on the Pill. Pietro is sick from the stress of working late and not sleeping. She realizes he wants a subservient wife who will just listen to him and not speak, the opposite of his mother and sister, but she’s not driven toward others this time. Mariarosa visits, and hanging out with her and her friends inspires Elena to read some feminist tracts. She’s wants to talk about them with Lila but can’t in the face of her hard news from the neighborhood, and knows Lila would think them ridiculous. Elena talks with Mariarosa more, angering Pietro, who is contemptuous of feminism; one night she insults him and he slaps her in front of Dede. He leaves the house until five in the morning, and she’s relieved he’s come back and he says he doesn’t deserve her. One day Pasquale and Nadia unexpectedly stop by and spend the night, and are generally rude. She hears from Mariarosa that Franco’s been attacked by fascists and lost his eye, but when she goes to visit he doesn’t want to see her. She also visits Sylvia, who was also attacked with him, and raped. Her son Mirko resembles Nino.

Two months after Pasquale’s visit, Elena gets a call from Carmen—Pasquale’s disappeared and the police are looking for him. When Elena’s getting ready to leave on vacation, Lila calls and asks her to take Gennaro; Elena resists but gives in. Enzo brings him and when he’s a replica of Stefano, Elena is pleased Nino left Lila nothing. Enzo stays the night and talks about how he and Lila have moved to an even bigger company and are making even more money. Enzo tells her Michele has never stopped making Lila offers to work for him, and how Gennaro disappeared after school one day and wouldn’t answer questions about what happened when he turned up. Michele offered Lila a lot of money to be head tech of a System 3 computer he’s getting, and he also got Alfonso’s wife Marisa pregnant. When she asks Lila why she didn’t tell her any of this, Lila is cold and says she left and it’s none of her business, they’re too crude for her.

Elena goes to the beach with the three children while Pietro stays home and works; once she catches Dede and Genarro naked together and examining each other, and debates what to do but winds up scolding them. She wonders if she was ever attracted to Lila but pushes such questions away. Pietro shows her the news in the paper that two men and a woman broke into the salami factory and killed Bruno Saccavo. Gino’s also been shot and killed, and Elena starts to think Lila might be behind it. Awhile after she sends Gennaro back to Lila, Lila calls with the news that she’s head of Michele’s IBM data-processing center. When Elena says she can’t believe Lila gave in, Lila brings up Elena’s sister. Elena has to call her mother to learn that her sister Elisa is engaged to Marcello Solara, who’s also arranged jobs of a suspicious variety for her brothers. Elena takes her family to Naples for the first time since she’s been married.

When she arrives, she goes to the apartment where her sister lives with Marcello and eventually confesses to her sister, despite her sister’s excessive happiness, that she disapproves of the relationship. Then everyone comes over for a surprise party, and, much to Elena’s dismay, Marcello has their luggage brought from their hotel so they can stay with them. Gigliola shows up with her children and Manuela Solara comes; it’s her 60th birthday. Lila comes and it’s the first time that they’ve seen each other since before her marriage (they’re 30 years old), but they barely speak. Michele gives a long speech that winds around to praising Lila (and comparing her to his mother). He also gives Elena a German translation of her novel that she didn’t know existed from Antonio. Pietro spends a long time talking to Lila at dinner, then disparages her later to Elena, because he’s threatened by her, Elena thinks. They visit Michele’s IBM center and Lila tells Elena that Nino is back in Naples teaching. Stefano was arrested for having stolen goods and now Lila has to give him money, so she thinks it’s good she left him. She also talks about a comment Alfonso made about wanting to be a woman like her if he were a woman, and she talks about disappearing. Elena feels her life is motionless while Lila has complete freedom, and imagines Lila will get Nino to divorce his wife.

When she gets back to Florence, she fights with Pietro over an incident with a student and hangs out with feminists; Mariarosa encourages her to write about a perspective on men and women that echoes what Lila said about Alfonso saying he would be her if he were a woman—that Franco was only with her to mold her in the image of what he would be like as a woman. She starts writing about “the invention of woman by men, mixing the ancient and modern worlds.” Then one day, Pietro brings home Nino, whom he encountered in the course of work at the university. Nino takes them out to a restaurant and charms the family. He tells Pietro he needs to give Elena time to write. He says he’ll be back in a month, and Elena, encouraged, gets a draft done and gives it to him the next time they go out to dinner (with his wife and son), and he calls the next morning praising it before she goes out shopping with his wife. Later, Nino comes and stays with them for ten days; near the end of his visit he starts goading and insulting Pietro, causing Pietro to take a sleeping pill and go to bed early, and Elena to finally sleep with Nino.

She and Nino start calling each other constantly, and arrange to see each other in her apartment in Florence while she leaves Pietro at the beach with the children. She soon says she’s ready to tell Pietro and leave him, on the condition that Nino leave his wife, but Nino wavers, causing her to say it’s over between them. Pietro catches her in a lie and brings up her flirting with the men he brought home years ago, then asks if there’s anything between her and Nino, and she shouts that she has no choice but to go now. But she stays. Then one day shegets Nino’s wife on the phone instead of him and she yells at Elena, so Elena knows Nino has told her. He presses her to go to a conference with him, and she confesses to Pietro that they’re lovers, and Pietro makes her tell the children whom she’s leaving him for. He makes them believe that if she goes to the conference she’ll never come back, and they’re so upset she promises them she won’t go, but then she does. Right before she’s about to leave, Lila calls saying first that Manuela Solara has been murdered and then that she’s going to send Gennaro to her because of the bad climate in the neighborhood. When Elena tells her she can’t because she’s leaving her husband for Nino, Lila contemptuously declares she’s a fool. Elena gets on a plane for the first time to go to France for the conference with Nino. The end. For now. 

In this installment’s opening chapter, Lila’s reference to her ability to infiltrate Elena’s computer files foreshadows the turn in her career path that will once again give her the upper hand in their shifting power dynamic. Their power struggle continues in the third installment, with Elena being able to use her connections to help Lila at her lowest point, losing her mind from the pressure to do something about the poor conditions at the salami factory. Elena makes the connection explicit:

In the past Lila had opened the miraculous drawer of the grocery store and had bought me everything, especially books. Now I opened my drawers and paid her back, hoping that she would feel safe, as I now did.

This period is the buildup to Elena finally getting to escape Naples, which in and of itself elevates her significantly above Lila in their struggle, and neatly coincides with the point Lila returns to the neighborhood. (Of course, Elena’s leaving and Lila’s staying are, according to the title, the defining events of this installment.) Elena gets married roughly halfway through the book, in chapter 62, at the same time Lila’s moved back to the neighborhood, is regaining her footing, and is starting to undo some of the damage done in her absence by the Solaras. Elena’s marriage marks the definitive point of separation for them even more than Lila’s did:

In Milan, encouraged by Adele, I bought a cream-colored suit for the wedding, it looked good on me, the jacket was fitted, the skirt short. When I tried it on I thought of Lila, of her gaudy wedding dress, of the photograph that the dressmaker had displayed in the shop window on the Rettifilo, and the contrast made me feel definitively different. Her wedding, mine: worlds now far apart.

While Lila’s wedding/marriage was the climax of the first installment, Elena’s is the center of the third. The arc of this installment is the buildup to and the subsequent letdown of this major event. Right before Elena leaves for Florence, she gets two challenges to the potential of her new life and its connections when she takes Lila with her to say goodbye to Professor Galiani. While there, Elena first comes under attack from Pasquale and Nadia for how she “resolved” the Saccavo factory situation by calling her connections (with Lila saying they’re right), and then Professor Galiani essentially ignores Elena and says nothing about her book while effusively complimenting the pages Lila wrote for their communist meeting about the factory that Nadia left lying around. Here, in the site of a power reversal that happened in the previous book—the party where Elena felt at home and Lila felt alienated—the power is reversed again when Professor Galiani seems to be pointing out implicitly that everything Elena has actually originates with Lila—the pages about the factory Lila wrote are the source material for Elena’s article in the newspaper about it; Professor Galiani, being one of the only ones to see both source material and article, would be able to tell how she’d taken it from Lila. But then when they leave her apartment, Lila tries to amend this reversal by saying Professor Galiani treated Elena poorly like that out of jealousy for Elena’s recent success and increasing prominence. Kind of like how when Lila is again in a position of power over Elena—issuing an opinion on her second book manuscript—she subverts it by saying Elena is the one who has to do what she couldn’t.

Of course, inevitably, leaving Naples is not the saving grace it was supposed to be. The lesson of the fulfillment of Elena’s lifelong desire is definitely to be careful what you wish for. What enabled Elena’s success and the possibility of her leaving is then debilitated by the act of her leaving—separated from Lila, her imagination is not sufficiently sparked for her writing. Even before the wedding happens, Elena is at odds with Pietro over having children, and motherhood is the struggle that Lila predicted (though of course Elena will never admit this to Lila). As Elena descends in the arc of her success, failing to replicate her early intellectual accomplishments as motherhood overwhelms her, Lila ascends in her arc, getting a job under Enzo working with computers and eventually getting paid even more than Enzo under Michele, whom she claims to be using rather than the other way around. Elena learns of Lila’s apparent capitulation to the Solaras at the same time she learns of her own family’s entrenchment with them—not only is her sister engaged to Marcello, but her brothers are now working for them. Elena hasn’t escaped the neighborhood so thoroughly after all.  

Book 3 begins and ends with Elena in the company of Nino, after her first reading in the bookstore at the beginning, and on a plane for the first time leaving her family to go to a conference with him at the end. This volume concludes with an objective correlative description of the effect of Nino on her life:

At times I had the impression that the floor under my feet—the only surface I could count on—was trembling.

Following the pattern established at the beginning of the first book, Elena follows in Lila’s footsteps by ruining herself and her marriage to be with Nino. It’s interesting to map the consequences of Elena’s infidelities in the narrative: fooling around with Mario drives her back into Pietro’s arms, resulting in the unwanted pregnancy of her second child, while her flirtation with and desire for Nino drives her to complete her first successful piece of writing in a decade. The subject matter of that writing project makes Nino’s influence even more ironic: the invention of woman by man. Elena thought Franco trying to make her more cultured in college was the primary example of this phenomenon in her own life, but many of the major events in her life have occurred because of men: her first novel would not have been published without her engagement to Pietro; she caved to Pietro’s wishes not to put off having a child; when she was able to put him off from having more children, Mario’s influence led her to conceive Elsa; and she only finished her second book because of the motivation of Nino. While the ostensible point of this entire four-volume narrative is to show how she would not be who she is without Lila, she’s also very much a woman invented by men.

A big moment for Elena and Lila’s relationship occurs when Lila summons Elena the night she quits the salami factory. Among other things, Lila confides details about her sex life, specifically that she’s never gotten pleasure from sex, not even with Nino. Elena refuses to return this confidence, though her novel has essentially already returned that confidence for her. But Pietro turning out to be a terrible lover almost seems like implicit revenge for this potential rejection of Lila, Elena’s wedding night offering its own parallel violence to Lila’s:

As soon as we got to our apartment and closed the door we began to make love. At first it was very pleasurable, but the day reserved for me yet another surprising fact. Antonio, my first boyfriend, when he rubbed against me was quick and intense; Franco made great efforts to contain himself but at a certain point he pulled away with a gasp, or when he had a condom stopped suddenly and seemed to become heavier, crushing me under his weight and laughing in my ear. Pietro, on the other hand, strained for a time that seemed endless. His thrusting was deliberate, violent, so that the initial pleasure slowly diminished, overwhelmed by the monotonous insistence and the hurt I felt in my stomach. He was covered with sweat from his long exertions, maybe from suffering, and when I saw his damp face and neck, touched his wet back, desire disappeared completely. But he didn’t realize it, he continued to withdraw and then sink into me forcefully, rhythmically, without stopping. I didn’t know what to do. I caressed him, I whispered words of love, and yet I hoped that he would stop. When he exploded with a roar and collapsed, finally exhausted, I was content, even though I was hurting and unsatisfied.

In light of Nino’s comment that Lila is “made badly” when it comes to sex, Lila’s confession that she’s never derived sexual pleasure from her experiences with men raises the possibility that she might be more attracted to women. While the scene near the climax of the first book when Elena bathes Lila on the morning of her wedding day is rife with homoerotic undertones, Elena seems to consider the topic most directly here in the third book when she comes upon her daughter and Lila’s son naked and examining each other.

With difficulty I reached the point of asking myself: had she and I ever touched each other? Had I ever wished to, as a child, as a girl, as an adult? And her? I hovered on the edge of those questions for a long time. I answered slowly: I don’t know, I don’t want to know. And then I admitted that there had been a kind of admiration for her body, maybe that, yes, but I ruled out anything ever happening between us. Too much fear, if we had been seen we would have been beaten to death.

She dismisses the possibility that they would have done anything because of the repercussions, not because the desire wasn’t there…

So now we wait to see just how well Elena’s choice or Nino over her family will turn out, and how accurate Lila’s assessment that Elena is a fool will be. Likely fairly accurate it would seem…

-SCR