Plot, Character, Power, Candy

With all your power, what would you do?

-The Flaming Lips, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”

The two-part novel that consists of Daemon and Freedom is marketed as a “techno-thriller,” and its author Daniel Suarez as the heir to Michael Crichton. It is an interesting example to examine what differentiates the thriller from “literary” fiction, since its themes encompass social commentary that might well be considered more than just pure entertainment, despite its heavy dose of action sequences that seem designed for the silver screen.

The first book begins with the news story of the death of Matthew Sobol, head of the online gaming company CyberStorm Entertainment. The same day his death is announced, two prominent CyberStorm programmers die violent deaths, and Detective Sergeant Pete Sebeck is sent to investigate. After Sebeck receives a video from Matthew Sobol saying he killed the programmers, Sebeck starts working with Jon Ross, a suspect in the dissemination of a strange computer virus known as a daemon, who explains that the daemon is triggered to do things in response to the occurrence of other pre-programmed events, and so could be behind the murders. Meanwhile, Brian Gragg, a hacker who steals and sells identities, discovers an unusual game map when playing CyberStorm Entertainment’s Over the Rhine that leads him, in real life, to an abandoned warehouse, where he’s interrogated by a computerized voice. When the feds try to search Sobol’s estate, an automated Hummer kills several of them but stops short of killing Sebeck. At Sobol’s funeral, Sebeck and Ross meet NSA steganalyst Natalie Philips and her handler, a Department of Defense liaison known only as the Major. While there, Sebeck gets a call from Sobol’s voice telling him he must invoke the Daemon before he dies. On another attempt to enter Sobol’s estate, Roy Merritt’s team is burned to death, while Merritt miraculously manages to blow up the server room and survive. The computerized Sobol voice also enlists Anji Anderson, a disgraced news anchor, to cover the Daemon’s events. Sebeck is arrested for creating a Daemon hoax and murdering federal agents; Ross is with him but they let him go before Philips shows up and says they figured out Jon Ross was a fake identity. The heads of government agencies confront evidence that Sebeck was framed, but conclude that the public needs to believe the Daemon is a hoax.

In Part 2, “Eight Months Later,” the Daemon frees Charles Mosely from prison and directs him to an fMRI office, where he’s forcibly subjected to extreme video footage while his brain is scanned, and eventually he’s welcomed as part of the Daemon team. Jon Ross approaches Roy Merritt to get him to contact Natalie Philips to tell her the Daemon is not a hoax (he also confesses he’s actually Russian). Philips shows her higher-ups when Ross shows her a portal to the Daemon’s darknet in Sobol’s computer game. A group of random young men follow instructions to create a self-driving Town Car. An equity group corporation is sent a video informing it of being under the Daemon’s control; it can no longer access its own network. Sebeck triggers a new Daemon event by invoking it before he’s executed.

In Part 3, the CEO of the hijacked equity group is finally forced to acknowledge the Daemon is real. Philips wants to tell the public about all the networks that have been hijacked, but her higher-ups fear this will cause financial panic. She tells them about an IP beacon they’ve discovered the Daemon putting out with its own destroy function. The government heads decide they’ll use it to keep a few companies afloat that the global economy is dependent on, and destroy the rest. After the Major tells the equity group CEO which companies they’re saving so he can reallocate his investments, Brian Gragg shows up to kill the CEO with an automated Town Car. The same crew who made the automated Town Cars gets orders to make something they undeniably recognize to be a killing machine. Different Daemon operatives are directed by a computerized voice to meet up with others to pass off parts to connect to other parts, making a gun that’s eventually handed off to Charles Mosely, who is directed to kill several people in a particular room in what turns out to be a global coordinated attack on spammers. Sebeck is put to death. Philips and Ross have been working together, and Ross discovers the Daemon’s darknet.

At Building Twenty-Nine, a former Navy facility that’s now the headquarters of the Daemon Task Force, Roy Merritt drops off a package of computerized glasses he somehow managed to acquire that Philips is able to use to access the Daemon’s darknet; once they’re logged on, they see that there’s another Daemon operative in the building. It’s Brian Gragg, who is able to easily kill a strike team and escape from a locked room because the Daemon has hijacked the building’s security system. He destroys all the Daemon technology they’ve been able to gather as evidence and sends in an army of Autom8s to escort him out. Roy Merritt pursues him and his pack on a motorcycle but then is shot and killed by the Major from a helicopter, since he doesn’t want the public to find out about the Daemon and Merritt is drawing too much attention to the situation. Philips and Ross manage to escape the automated Razorback motorcycles and Autom8s before Gragg blows up the building remotely, but Ross flees the scene before rescuers arrive. Finally, Pete Sebeck is brought back to consciousness by a Daemon operative at the morgue. He speaks to an avatar of Matthew Sobol asking him to accept a mission to justify the freedom of humanity; Sebeck does because the Daemon is supporting his family.

The second book, Freedom, begins with a hedge fund CEO’s compound being breached by automated Razorbacks, which manage to infiltrate his panic room and kill him as part of a coordinated global attack on financial titans (similar to that on spammers in the first book). Government heads continue to discuss how to cover up the Daemon’s existence to protect the economy, with the private sector exerting increasing pressure. At Roy Merritt’s funeral, Brian Gragg shows Natalie Philips footage of the Major killing Merritt and tells her Jon Ross joined the Daemon’s darknet, while a lot of Daemon operatives show up and launch an aerial attack against Korr Security people. Pete Sebeck and Laney Price follow the thread in Sebeck’s HUD glasses leading him on his quest to the Cloud Gate to a demonstration about Anasazi civilization collapsing due to refusing to change their ways, and then Price demonstrates to Sebeck how easily people can be controlled by their data. The thread then leads them to a shaman on an Indian reservation, where they’re building efficient solar-powered structures and generators for long-term sustainability, and the shaman Riley teaches him how to use the darknet’s shamanic interface. The Major gets a business report on unprecedented drops in the growing of traditional crops.

 In Part 2, Hank Fossen is accosted on his farm in Iowa by representatives of the corporation Halperin Organix for using their patented seeds. Hank’s daughter Jenna is a darknet member and brings him into the fold after she manages to stop Halperin’s lawsuit. The Major is attacked by Razorbacks while on a resort but manages to evade them. Jon Ross meets up with darknet members in Hong Kong from the Order of (Roy) Merritt to forge some magical rings (the Rings of Aggys). The Major continues to evade Loki, and Ross is dragged to a meeting he actually rigged (to tell about the Daemon) with a former Chinese coworker whose company wants him brought in, but he evades them by using the magic rings to make himself invisible to cameras. Natalie Philips is called in to try to identify him on camera to kill him. Loki meets up with Boerner’s avatar, who asks him to bring him into the real world, and Loki agrees. Loki then uses an elaborate Razorback entourage to attack the hotel where the Major’s used his alias, but it’s a trap and the Major catches him. Ross sends Philips an invitation to play The Gate and they meet up in the game. The government spreads stories that immigrant gangs are responsible for the rising violence in the Midwest, when really the government is responsible for it. The Major cuts off Loki’s fingers and tongue and eyes. Eventually some soldiers show up in the facility where Loki’s being held and Boerner kills the guy guarding Loki.

 In Part 3, the private sector fully takes over the government. Ross meets Hank Fossen in Iowa and tours his sustainable farm. That night a military group attacks, and Ross helps save them before Sebeck shows up. One of the captured private soldiers is so impressed by the machine that interrogates him that he defects. Ross tells Sebeck of his fears that the Major and the “financial system behind the scenes” are trying to hack into the Daemon to take control of it. Natalie Philips is loaned to the private Weyburn labs and is sent to their outpost, the enormous Sky Ranch compound at an undisclosed location for Project Exorcist; private sector guys interrogate her about what she thinks about the “Daemon blocker” they’ve come up with that they think will allow them to take control of its Destroy function. The Major meets up with an old covert-war-buddy colonel as he, the Major, is unloading pallets of cash. They meet up with the CEO of Halperin Organix, who’s upset that paramilitary operations have been carried out in the name of protecting Halperin’s patents; when he’s rude to the Major, the Major has him killed with the cover story that “domestic insurgent” darknet members did it. They’re mounting an operation against Greeley, Iowa. Ross gets the news from their security drones that they’re being surrounded, and when he tells Sebeck, Sebeck’s quest thread appears again and directs him out through enemy lines into what turns out to be a trap; the enemy was able to gain darknet access by cutting off a darknet operative’s head and manipulate his thread. The Major’s faction disseminates the news that the private security forces are containing looting and anarchy in the Midwest. Ross helps fight the massive attack launched in Greeley, in which Hank Fossen is killed and which is finally stopped when Roy Merritt’s powerful avatar calls in laser-shooting mirror balls until the soldiers retreat. After Sebeck won’t lead the Major on his quest, Loki, now with mechanized fingers and eyes, rescues Sebeck and Laney as they’re about to be tossed in a wood chipper. Sebeck joins him and Taylor (Charles Mosely) on their mission to stop the Major and Operation Exorcist. Jon Ross breaks into Philip’s room at the ranch compound and she explains how they’ve figured out a way to subvert the Daemon’s Destroy function and that she thinks something bigger is about to happen based on how many forces they’re gathering. They use the darknet to search the ranch’s surveillance and find a studio they’re broadcasting the fake news reports from using Anji Anderson, then figure out they’re planning to invoke the Destroy function against everyone else and seize control in the chaos. Philips is upset that she’s the one who gave them the code to the function, while people on the darknet are upset Loki has as much power as he does to summon all the Autom8s to use against the Major. He uses them to violently breach the gates at the ranch. The darknet factions attack the ranch from all sides, but the darknet is knocked out when the Destroy function is invoked and most of the world loses power (literally–electricity–and figuratively) from a “psyops action” they launch simultaneously. But when the private mercenary soldiers they’ve sent to Sobol’s data centers get there, they find a video of Sobol saying that the flaw they took advantage of to take over the Daemon was planted and that he now knows who tried to take over the world, and has destroyed all their money. The power (and darknet) comes back on. The ranch forces surrender to the darknet factions but Loki keeps slaughtering until so many people disapprove that they summon the Roy Merritt avatar, who strips Loki of his powers. Sebeck’s quest thread reappears and leads to a port on the Houston shipping channel, where he talks to an apparition of a younger, healthier Sobol, who asks him if he should have done what he did, and if he should destroy the Daemon. Sebeck says no, and then receives a message from his son over the darknet, forgiving him. After hiding out in the ranch for a couple of days, the Major tries to escape, but is caught and cut down by Heinrich Boerner. The End.

Together, the two novels trace an unexpected arc when what originally seems to be the evil entity–Sobol’s Daemon–turns out to be the good guy. This concept of the good guy initially appearing as the bad is replicated in the text when Sebeck, the one in charge of investigating the Daemon, is framed and publicly executed for creating it. Encountering the framing of Sebeck in the first book, the reader likely still thinks the Daemon is evil for doing so, and by the end of that book Sebeck himself still considers Sobol evil and only goes along on the quest that propels his narrative in the second book because the Daemon coerces him into it by threatening his family–again something that likely has the reader thinking the Daemon is evil at the end of book 1. The second book introduces the concept of the darknet factions, and thus the positive effects of the Daemon’s influence, as well as the motives of the private sector, which, while revealed in book 1, then emerge as the dominant evil force.

Even at this point, though, when the good and bad guys have switched places, the plot is still more complex than good versus evil. Brian Gragg is clearly established as beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt evil in the chapter that first introduces us to him, in which he coordinates a rave and drugs a girl into publicly stripping and blowing him on camera; Gragg’s conscription by and alignment with the Daemon seems intended to reinforce the reader’s initial perception of the Daemon itself as evil. But then Gragg’s first act after the Daemon transforms him by imbuing him with power is to kill the CEO that the Major is colluding with, in the same act which reveals that the Major, who’s on the side fighting the evil Daemon, to be evil himself. Then there’s Roy Merritt, whose fighting against Sobol ironically turns him into a hero to the factions Sobol’s Daemon has generated, and who is killed by the Major, someone from same the side he’s supposed to be on himself. Merritt’s fighting for the Daemon as an avatar in the second book reinforces that we are now supposed to perceive the Daemon and its ultimate motives as good. The fact that Sobol’s and Sebeck’s names are so similar (something writers are generally advised against) further evidences Suarez’s smearing conceptions of protagonist and antagonist. But our modern corporatocracy emerges as the unequivocal enemy here. 

The overall concept is morally complex, that true social change can only come at a significant cost, likely bloodshed. Though many of the book’s elements may seem far-fetched (like the laser-shooting mirror balls), many don’t (like the private sector infiltrating the government), and if anything, it makes one consider the vulnerabilities inherent in our interconnectedness and in the consolidation of corporate power that shows no signs of slowing. By the end, the novels seem to be a full-blown critique of the New World Order concept:

They could finally unify the world under a single all-encompassing economic power.

What was the alternative, after all? Surrendering control of the civilized world to an uneducated mob?

Indeed, some of the scenes, like the one that opens Freedom with the greedy hedge-fund CEO being stalked by razorbacks, start to feel like revenge porn against the top .01%. Which is not necessarily not enjoyable, it’s just enjoyable in the way a candy bar might be–it tastes good and provides a momentary sugar high, but then there’s a hard crash caused by a lack of any meaningful nutrients. Suarez’s vivid sensory details bring a suspenseful world to life, but it’s one primarily focused on action rather than character development, and it is this that differentiates the thriller from the literary: the subversion of character to plot. In the thriller, the characters are pawns of the plot, getting swept up in it without having any control over it, while in literary fiction, the plot most often originates from something the characters themselves did. In other words, in the thriller, the plot is in charge; in the literary, the character is in charge.

Plenty of characters are explored over the course of these two books, but this is precisely the issue–there are too many of them, too many to focus on one long enough to reach a level of depth that feels more meaningfully human than plot device. Every chapter jumps to a different point of view, and though many of these points of view recur, they’re furthering the story rather than the story furthering them. The most significant character arc we get is probably Gragg’s/Loki’s, who gets the emotional catharsis of not being rejected by the group he tried to forcibly exert control over and subvert the spirit of–but in the end, he still feels largely like a pawn being used to demonstrate how any social system is susceptible to the will to power inherent in human nature, his mechanized fingers and eyes by the end a symbol more apt than perhaps intended. 

Then there’s the romance that develops between Philips and Jon Ross. This has potential because of their characters’ circumstances, Philips isolated because of her genius and Jon Ross a refugee with a dark history who’s had to keep himself isolated out of necessity–but by the end it deflated into stereotypical Hollywood cheesiness. There’s also the case of Charles Mosely, who gets a lot of detailed attention, with an extended description of how he’s conscripted into the Daemon’s network and then another extended description of how his long-lost son is extracted from by force from a drug dealer’s hive and installed in a posh school. The most Mosely ends up figuring in the plot is we see he’s the one who actually kills people for particular operations, but his role did not feel integral enough to warrant the page and scene time dedicated to him, more like a way to show us how things were generally done–but ideally you’d show us that while simultaneously showing something that was specifically necessary. Not to mention that Mosely has nothing approaching a character arc aside from being initially skeptical of the Daemon–somewhat. 

But a helpful lesson could derive from the intertextual materials Suarez presents at the beginning of chapters to help navigate his narrative–in the first book, news stories that are triggering new Daemon events, and in the second book, darknet posts and figures showing the tanking economy, like the value of darknet credits and the price of gas. The numbers are good for giving a sense of passing time between chapters, while the rest is generally satisfying because it comes into play in the plot directly, as when we get a darknet post complaining about Loki’s abuse of power at the beginning of the chapter in which joint darknet complaints will summon the power of the Merritt avatar to disable him. 

At any rate, the story is about the evils of private corporate influence penetrating our public government–this is the parasite running our system. The Daemon becomes the parasite on that parasite, as explored in an extensive metaphor in the “Red Queen Hypothesis” chapter and elsewhere, in an early discussion of exactly what the Daemon is:

‘Now combine an application like that – a widely distributed entity that never dies – with tens of millions of dollars and the ability to purchase goods and services. It’s answerable to no one and has no fear of punishment.’

‘My God. It’s a corporation.’

Suarez seems to posit that the only thing capable of wiping out a corporate system is a corporate-like entity. At the end of the day the story’s over the top, but that doesn’t make its potential warnings any less salient. So it’s more nutritious than a candy bar, but not as nutritious as it could or perhaps purports to be…so maybe it’s a Power Bar. 

-SCR

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The Perks of Patchett, Part 2: Bel Canto

Techniques tracked:
-use of omniscience in space AND time
-borrowing from real-life events

Curtis Sittenfeld has pointed out that both Patchett’s classic Bel Canto, considered her breakthrough, and her newest novel Commonwealthstart[] with an unexpected kiss at a party”–but while in Commonwealth this kiss comes near the end of the first chapter, in Bel Canto it’s in the very first line:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

It’s as good a time as any to revisit this classic, the film adaptation of which is slated for release next year, with Julianne Moore starring as opera singer Roxane Coss (she’s only 20 years older than Roxane is in the book…).

One
The accompanist of Roxane Coss, “lyric soprano,” kisses her after she’s just finished singing for a private party in “the host country,” somewhere in South America. The lights go out. Everyone is gathered here for the birthday party of Mr. Hosokawa, a prominent Japanese CEO who the country’s government hopes will build a factory there, but who has in fact only come because he is an ardent fan of Roxane Coss. The country’s president was supposed to be at the party, but backed out at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera. When the lights come back on, a group of eighteen terrorists storms the room. Since many of the party’s guests are foreigners, a language barrier presents itself that will be aided by Mr. Hosokawa’s versatile translator Gen, whom he met in Greece several years prior. The terrorists demand the president, and pistol-whip the vice president, Ruben (whose house is where the party is, and who is a common man), when he tells them the president isn’t there, which undoes all of the terrorists’ plans. Sirens approach.

Two
The police set up outside. Some hostages sleep and everyone is eventually escorted to the bathroom the next morning. Mr. Hosokawa feels guilty, since he was the reason for the party and thus the reason everyone’s there. Joachim Messner knocks on the door–their mediator from the Red Cross. Gen translates for him; he wants them to let the women go in exchange for provisions. Ruben’s governess, Esmerelda, sews up Ruben’s cut face after Messner tries and fails, then leaves. There is a selfish old priest and a compassionate young priest present. Messner returns and the generals say they will give up the women and the workers and separate them from the men; Mr. Hosokawa helps with Roxane’s increasingly ill accompanist. The young priest, Father Arguedas, opts to stay after they try to send him away. Then the women and others exit the house.

Three
Roxane Coss is pulled from the line of exiting women, which almost causes a moment of insurrection. The accompanist, who left with the ill, returns for Roxane and insists on staying. Father Arguedas gives him last rites. Roxane has been irritated with the accompanist because he confessed his love to her on the plane ride over and has been relentless about it ever since. She looks in his pockets, figuring out he’s diabetic and out of insulin right before he dies. The generals debate shooting the corpse so it will look like they killed him, which Roxane vehemently opposes, so they don’t. The hostages admire the accompanist’s love for Roxane. Messner and a helper pick up the body and drop off sandwiches. Gen offers Roxane Mr. Hosokawa’s condolences, and she goes over to him and they talk (while Gen translates) about how he thinks this is his fault; she says it isn’t. The men are interrogated to see who’s important enough to keep. Provisions are sent for, and the more important and less important men are separated.   

Four
After a week, things get more lax, and people do things as they need to. They figure out how young the terrorists actually are (many are teenagers) and the terrorists find out all the different places people are from. There’s conversation about a possible overthrow, but the language barrier between everyone makes it even more unlikely. The terrorists explore the house, and the Frenchman Simon Thibault causes an uproar among them when he turns on the television, which none of them has seen before (imitating Roxane, Cesar sings to his reflection in it before Simon turns it on). Two of the soldiers turn out to be girls, Beatriz and Carmen, the one who’s most attached to Roxane. Oscar Mendoza and Ruben (who’s given Roxane his wife’s clothes) talk about telling Roxane they love her. Roxane says she needs to start singing soon and Gen looks for someone who can play the piano and finally finds Tetsuya Kato, who came with him and Mr. Hosokowa, though neither had any idea he could play. All 58 people there come to hear him when he starts to play, beautifully.

Five
Gen is kept busy translating for everyone, and translates for Kato and Roxane. Messner comes in to talk to the generals; the only requests they honor are Roxane’s, and so now she also asks for stuff for other people. Her request this time is music from her manager; Father Arguedas gets wind of this conversation, says he can get the music, and gets permission to call his friend Manuel for it (and also gets Roxane to say a few words on the line). Simon sneaks a call to his wife but only gets the answering machine. Gen wants to talk to Carmen but struggles to speak when he’s not translating for others; fortunately Messner wants to talk to her to make sure she’s okay, so Gen gets to. When Messner comes back at a time he’s not supposed to with the box of music, General Alfredo tries to turn him away in a show of authority, but Roxane starts to sing and then says she’ll never sing again there if she doesn’t get the music right then, and Alfredo goes to Benjamin, who caves. Roxane looks through the music and Kato plays some. Carmen goes to look at Gen sleeping while she’s keeping watch, and wakes him up and asks him to teach her to read in Spanish.

Six
The box arriving is the pivotal point of everyone’s captivity, terrorist and hostage alike–Roxane’s singing makes each of their situations more bearable. Now Roxane Coss is in charge and the day is divided according to her singing routine. This is the happiest time in Mr. Hosokowa’s life. Gen gives Beatriz his watch so she can know when to watch the Maria soap opera. The Russian Victor Fyodorov tells Gen (who’s watching for Carmen) that he’d like to speak to Roxane Coss. They’re now past the second week, and, through the increasingly unprepared food sent to the house, Ruben recognizes the world outside getting bored with their situation. Gen manages to convince General Benjamin to have some of the soldiers help them cook so they can use the knives. Gen confirms he will teach Carmen Spanish.  

Seven
Father Arguedas starts saying Mass, which even the non-religious enjoy thanks to Roxane Coss’s singing. The rains end as the seasons change. Carmen suggests to Gen that Roxane is in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Gen is in love with Carmen, whom he’s been teaching in secret at night, and they finally kiss in the bathroom while Victor Fyodorov is pestering Gen to come help him talk to Roxane. Fyodorov tells her a long story about how his appreciation for art originated with a book of paintings his grandmother showed him, and claims this makes him qualified to love her; Gen is embarrassed to translate these feelings of love that he’s never expressed himself. Fyodorov says he does not expect Roxane to return his love and that she doesn’t have to do anything. Roxane tells Gen it’s better if someone loves you for who you are instead of what you can do. Cesar the boy soldier gets hard listening to Roxane sing in the mornings, not for her, but for the music.

Eight
Mr. Hosokowa sometimes plays chess with General Benjamin. Messner comes in during a game after Ishmael gets permission to play the winner (he’s only learned how to play by watching) and exchanges the usual list of demands; the terrorists’ are getting more extreme in response to their having gotten nothing so far. When Roxane asks Messner how long he thinks they’ll be there, he says a long time. Roxane asks Gen to have Carmen bring Mr. Hosokowa to her room in the night. Ruben gives Benjamin some old antibiotics for his eye infected from shingles. Father Arguedas hears confessions from Oscar Mendoza and Beatriz. Gen works out a plan with Carmen, then tells Mr. Hosokowa Roxane wants him to come to her in the night. That night when they go, they wake up Beatriz asleep on watch, but Carmen convinces her not to tell. Carmen then takes Gen outside and they make love in the grass (later Gen will wish he’d used the opportunity to escape with her).

Nine
When Roxane Coss doesn’t come down the next morning to sing, Cesar sings instead, impressively imitating her. Roxane comes down and interrupts him, and, thinking she’s angry, he flees to a tree. Carmen tries and fails to convince him to come down, and when Roxane wants to go outside to try, Benjamin decides to let everyone go outside for the first time since they’ve been in captivity. Roxane tells Cesar she’ll give him singing lessons. Some of the Germans run for exercise, and Ruben starts pulling weeds in the overgrown garden; he promises Ishmael he can come live with him when the ordeal is over.

Ten
Thanks to Carmen, Mr. Hosokowa becomes good at sneaking up to Roxane’s room. Lovemaking regularly disrupts Gen’s and Carmen’s Spanish lessons. They go outside frequently now, enjoy soccer games, exercise, and gardening. Everyone’s happier except Messner, who looks noticeably worse when he comes. He tries to tell Gen they need to convince the generals to surrender, but Gen doesn’t pick up on his urgency. They hear Cesar singing in his lessons with Roxane. Messner tells the generals that the government is going to stop letting him come soon, but they still refuse to give in. The hostages live now as if they have forgotten their lives from before, and can’t think about the future. Gen manages to forget Messner’s warning; he suggests trying to escape to Carmen but they quickly get distracted. Roxane Coss has fallen in love with Cesar’s singing on the heels of falling in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Cesar sings for his lesson in the mornings and then they all go outside. One morning Roxane screams when she sees a man she doesn’t recognize heading towards them. He shoots Cesar, and she covers his dying body with hers. Then there are many men who spread out and methodically shoot all the terrorists, clearly knowing who the hostages are. Gen looks for Carmen, but she’s already dead, having been shot right after Cesar was, with Roxane witnessing it. Mr. Hosokowa, throwing himself in front of Carmen, was killed by the same bullet.

Epilogue
Gen and Roxane have just gotten married in Lucca, with Simon and his wife as witnesses. Simon and Gen go to look for an open bar and discuss how Gen, who translates books now, will live in Milan with Roxane. Gen brings up that the news he’s seen about what happened to them never mentioned Beatriz or Carmen, but said there were fifty-nine men and one woman. Simon says the coverage in France was the same, but realizes that Gen and Carmen were together. Gen says Roxane’s singing is the only thing that reminds him there’s good in the world. They return to the open arms of their waiting wives. The End.

One of the most prominent features of this novel, far and away Patchett’s most popular, is her use of omniscience. She establishes in the novel’s second sentence that this omniscience has limits, seeming to acknowledge that there are some things that simply cannot be known for certain:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.

Patchett uses this omniscience to manage a large cast, giving herself the freedom to tell the reader about the general state of things as well as dive directly into any character’s head, offering what the critic James Wood in his treatise How Fiction Works has labeled “free indirect style,” where there is no mediation between the reader and the character’s thoughts. One can get an idea of how Patchett transitions from external observations to character’s thoughts (in which pronouns are altogether dispensed with) in passages like:

“This is certainly fine for me,” Roxane said. She sipped her glass of water. The sight of it made Fyodorov tremble, the water, her lips. He had to look away. What was it he wanted to say? He could write a letter instead, wouldn’t that be proper? The translator could translate. A word was a word if you spoke it or wrote it down.

The way she seamlessly roves among the thoughts of the characters seems inspired by Tolstoy, but Patchett reveals it’s not as seamless as it seems:

“The biggest achievement of this book for me, the thing that I am most proud of, is the narrative structure — that kind of third person narrative that I think of as Russian, wherein the point of view just seamlessly moves among the characters. That was the hardest part of writing the book. It was what took me so long. It’s the thing I’ve wanted to do since I started writing fiction.”

Patchett also uses omniscience in time, telling us about things that will happen in the future. Before the terrorists storm the party, we’re told:

It had been a beautiful party, though no one would remember that.

This builds tension, letting us know something significant is about to happen. In the first chapter we’re also told that:

It was the unspoken belief of everyone who was familiar with this organization and with the host country that they were all as good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.

This is a classic example of giving away the ending increasing tension rather than mitigating it. If we know the terrorists are going to die, what’s the point of reading any further? To witness the meaningful relationships they form with their hostages and vice versa. When one reads this line initially, one assumes that the hostages would be relieved and/or happy from this prospect, but the surprise of the narrative is that by the time the deaths actually happen, it will be a tragedy, a sad (indeed horrible) ending, far from a happy one. The tension of the narrative resides in finding out how terrorists dying took on the opposite emotional import than we’d expect.

The novel was published in May of 2001; Patchett was not rendering sympathetic terrorists as a conscious response to Sept. 11, but it almost seems prescient, since one might argue that it was an American lack of understanding of Islamic extremism as a product of American hypocrisy and misdeeds that made our response to that event so inept, a cause of, rather than an impediment to, further damage. In Bel Canto, the terrorists get nearly the same amount of development as the hostages; their humanity is on full display. She makes the Generals Alfredo and Benjamin sympathetic through their injuries–missing fingers and an ongoing raging case of shingles. It’s also apparent that their motives are ultimately not to do harm but good, such as releasing the wrongfully imprisoned. It’s disappointing that the book’s success doesn’t seem to have much impacted the national consciousness at the time.  

Though it was not 9/11, Patchett was inspired by a real-life terrorist incident, the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru in 1996. It’s narratively useful to see what she took from reality and what she adjusted. The fundamentals of the real-life event we can get from the Wikipedia article about it:

The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on 17 December 1996 in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru, Morihisa Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday.

Notably, the detailed article mentions nothing about the relationship between the terrorists and the hostages.

We can see that Patchett took a lot of the basics–roughly the same number of terrorists, likely the same country, though she leaves it unnamed, and the originating event being a birthday party for a Japanese man. She also seems to have kept the release of the women after the first night, the four-month time frame that the standoff lasted, and the way it ended in a military raid with all the terrorists being killed while only one hostage was. (Interestingly, the president of Peru at the time, Alberto Fujimori, who oversaw the perceived-as-successful military operation freeing the hostages, was a Peruvian of Japanese ancestry who eventually fled to Japan; he also apparently had such a penchant for soap operas that meetings were not allowed to be scheduled during them.) The military raid was achieved in the book and in real life by digging a tunnel, but in real life the insurgents heard noises that made them suspect the tunnel was being dug, while in the book they seem to be taken completely by surprise. The raid took place during a game of soccer in both, though in real life this happened because the military had been spying and knew this was the optimal time the terrorists let their guard down (it was also an indoor game, not outdoor as in Patchett). In the real Peruvian crisis, women were known to be among the militants in the terrorist group, as opposed to Patchett’s account, where there were females but nobody outside the house knew about them. Patchett’s also changed who the house belongs to from a non-native (the Japanese ambassador) of the host country to one of its highest ranking politicians (the vice-president). Perhaps most prominently, she’s added a famous opera singer.

Probably on first read a lot of people forget that early line warning that the terrorists will not survive, but Patchett does occasionally remind us that there will be some survivors:

Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

The box contains the music that Roxane Coss will use to sing. Part of her inclusion in this narrative seems to emphasize that art can make any circumstances bearable–even enjoyable. It was also the basis for the structure, as Patchett revealed in an interview shortly before the book was published:

“I wanted somehow to get all of those elements that I love about opera into a novel. I wanted to write a book that would be like an opera in its structure, its grandeur, its musicality, its melodrama.”

As the Guardian’s review of the novel points out, the book pulls off a unique coup:

The trick is ingenious: a hijack in which the captors have nowhere to go and the hostages have no desire for release.

After the box of music, the captives start to be happier as hostages than they were in their former lives–with the possible exception of Simon, who desperately misses his wife. This exception emphasizes the other aspect that the novel dramatizes as making life bearable–love.

The two primary love stories in the narrative arise against all odds, and could only have ever happened due to the particular circumstances of the hostage situation: Mr. Hosokowa and Roxane getting together despite a language barrier, and Gen and Carmen getting together despite his being a hostage from Japan and her a terrorist from the mountains of South America. According to Wikipedia, these relationships are the “backdrop” for the rest of the story.

As Patchett’s use of omniscience-in-time indicates, time works in something of a nontraditional way in this narrative; many parts of the novel are describing periods of time rather than a specific moment in time. Thus, some of the scenes we do get, such as Father Arguedas hearing Beatriz’s confession, are not furthering a linear plot–though some scenes, such as Father Arguedas talking on the phone to his friend Manuel about the music to be sent, are furthering something more akin to a linear plot–but rather showing how the terrorists and hostages have become interchangeable, have all become people. But we do see chains of events unfolding here that primarily center on establishing objects of love, so that in the climax we feel a significant impact of loss. With Carmen’s help, Gen facilitates Mr. Hosokowa’s rendezvous with Roxane. The first night this happens, Roxane doesn’t come down to sing the next morning, prompting Cesar to sing instead; without her having met up with her lover, she might never have discovered Cesar’s singing, her second great love. That Cesar has a prodigal operatic voice might seem convenient (and some critics have remarked as much), might seem to be stretching reality, but the conception of the novel as an operatic melodrama makes this appropriate. 

The fact that Mr. Hosokowa is the only hostage who dies is narratively appropriate, since he, as was emphasized by his guilt in the early chapters, is the reason everyone was there to be taken hostage. With the reason for them being there removed, the hostages are narratively free to go. The epilogue, with Gen and Roxane marrying, is also narratively fitting, in that the two people who have both had their loves taken away from them take solace in each other. Of course, there’s also been the emphasis on how Gen is a kind of extension of Mr. Hosokowa, and Mr. Hosokowa’s own considerations of what would change if they ever got their old lives back, which is actually impossible:

He tried not to give himself over to fantasies: he would get a divorce; he would follow her from city to city, sitting in the front row of every opera house in the world. Happily, he would have done this, given up everything for her. But he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.

It’s also fitting that Simon and his wife would be the wedding witnesses, as Simon’s love for his wife made him the only one who seemed to not completely enjoy their captive circumstances by the end. One suspects that even if Mr. Hosokowa knew he would ultimately die, he would have considered his period in captivity, and the intimacy with the beloved opera singer it enabled him, worth it, that he still would have gone to the party even if he knew how it would end.

The omniscience-in-time is also used for a particularly emotional effect when Gen and Carmen first sleep together, when we’re told about how Gen will remember this moment later:

First, he will imagine what he did not do:

In this version, he takes Carmen’s hand and leads her out the gate at the end of the front walkway. There are military guards on the other side of the wall but they, too, are young and asleep, and together they pass them and simply walk out into the capital city of the host country. Nobody knows to stop them. They are not famous and nobody cares. They go to an airport and find a flight back to Japan and they live there, together, happily and forever.

Gen’s tragedy is re-emphasized right before the military storm the house at the end, when Messner tries to communicate that things have gotten urgent:

“It is a standoff,” Gen said. “Maybe a permanent one. If they keep us here forever, we’ll manage.”

“Are you insane?” Messner said. “You were the brightest one here once, and now you’re as crazy as the rest of them.”

This very much echoes a conversation that Gen had with Carmen earlier:

“What do you mean, this is where we live now?”

Carmen sighed. “You know I can’t say. But ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?” This room was a third of the size of the china closet. Her knees touched his legs. If he took even a half step back he would be on the commode. She wished she could take his hand. Why would he want to leave her, leave this place?

“This has to end sooner or later,” he said. “These sorts of things never just go on indefinitely, somebody stops them.”

So the ending was foretold in the beginning (and foreshadowed at several points along the way), and we have a character–not just the omniscient narrator–who has more insight into this ending than the rest of the characters: the intermediary, Messner. In chapter 8, as Messner is starting to show his exhaustion, we get his internal thoughts:

More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn’t really care who won this one. But that wasn’t it exactly, because the governments always won. It was that he wouldn’t mind seeing these people get away, the whole lot of them. He wished they could use the tunnel the military was digging, wished they could crawl back into the air vents and down into that tunnel and go back into whatever leafy quarters they came from (emphasis added).

Here, we’ve inadvertently been told more specifically how the terrorists are all going to die in the end: the military will infiltrate the house through a tunnel that they’ve ostensibly been digging for months. The careful reader would connect this to a seemingly passing reference that we got in chapter 7:

While General Benjamin continued to cut out every mention of their circumstances from the newspaper, they had caught a snippet of talk on the television that a tunnel was being dug, that the police were planning on digging their way up into the house, and so the crisis would end much the way it had started, with strangers crashing into the room and redirecting the course of their lives, but no one believed this.

There’s a lot of foreboding surrounding Messner’s final extended appearance:

“It is not my intention to put my soldiers down in those caves. I would sooner see them dead and buried.”

You might see them dead, Messner thought, but you won’t have the chance to see them buried.

One might actually expect Messner to have a bit more of an internal debate about whether he should tell the group what’s going to happen, but if he had, then it might give away the ending too much. Patchett also addresses this pretty directly when she has him think:

Members of the Red Cross brought food and medicine, sometimes they would ferry papers for arbitration, but they were not moles. They did not spy. Joachim Messner would have no more told the terrorists what the military had planned than he would tell the military what was happening on the other side of the wall.

By incorporating references to the future, Patchett almost counterintuitively emphasizes the present. She’s telling us the things the characters cannot know at the time. It seems to be the characters’ lack of knowledge about their fate, and their consideration of the possibility of their imminent deaths, that allows for a heightened appreciation of the present moment. The extremity of these circumstances allows Patchett to wax more poetic than she might otherwise be able to get away with (it seems to also contribute to the mood of operatic melodrama). She is certainly a master of simile and metaphor, and so I will leave you with a mere few gems from a jewelry emporium:

He was the first to understand. He felt like he had been startled from a deep sleep, drunk from liquor and pork and Dvořák.

By now the bodyguards napped inside limousines like great, overfed dogs.

The house seemed to rise up like a boat caught inside the wide arm of a wave and flip onto its side.

They were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do. They were like small dogs trying to avoid a fight, their necks and bellies turned willfully towards sharp teeth, take me.

There were a series of loud clicks and then an artificial blue-white light spilled through the living-room window like cold milk and made everyone squint.

The Slavic language was pear brandy on his tongue.

To tell something to Carmen was to have it sewn forever into the silky folds of her brain.

He could see right inside her mouth, a damp, pink cave.

-SCR

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-SCR

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

 

Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 1: My Brilliant Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My gaze fell on the copper pots.

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

The answer, of course, is no.

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

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

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

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

Thus ends chapter 34. Then chapter 35 begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-SCR