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…