This is the penultimate book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. It picks up where it left off in the second book, with ‘Middle Time’ and Elena Greco narrating what happened to her and her brilliant friend Lila Cerrulo after her disappearance in the winter of 2005. As the storyteller Elena has access to Lila’s motives and actions because her friend had given her diaries to her –asking her not to read them. She did, of course. There’s no secrets between brilliant friends. Immediately when they return to Naples they are dragged into the past, with a body in a flowerbed, near their old elementary school. Lila recognises her immediately. It’s Gigolina Spagnuolo, ex-wife of gangster Michele Solaris.
‘I hadn’t seen her for several decades. Her beautiful face was ruined and her ankles had become enormous’.
This is a familiar figure in Ferrante’s books, the woman abandoned that goes mad and becomes suicidal. Love has sharp edges and women, rather than men, fall off the sides and are lost to themselves. The other constant is everyone loves Lila and the apparent success of Elena has its foundations in Lila’s charisma and brilliance. As a first-time author Elena draws on her experience of rejection by Nino Sarratore, whom she has always loved and desired for literary success. Her dream lover takes up with Lila, even though she’s married. The drives of lust and competitiveness with Lila combine to let Donnato, Nino’s father, have sex with her on a beach, as a kind of way of getting her own back – on Lila and Nino, even though they don’t know about it – and depite Donnato having sexually abused Elena, when she was a girl, . But more than that Elena draws on the magic of Lila’s childhood book The Blue Fairy, which she’d penned when she was ten, and a precocious child. Lila flings the copy of The Blue Fairy, Elena presents her with as a precious memento, into a brazier outside the sausage factory in which she works and faces daily humiliations. Bruno Soccavo, the owner, for example, and son of a rich industrialist, tries to grope and rape her, because, droit de seigneur, he could. Circles within circles. Bruno Soccavo, the gallant and gauche boy that courted Elena on the beach in Ischia, a friend of Nino and tried to kiss her on their holiday vocation, but was rejected.
Elena’s life is on the rise. As she rises Lila’s life turns to shit and vice versa. Elena is engaged to be married, does marry, Pietro Airota and lucks into the higher echelons of the movers and shakers in Milan and Italian society. Pietro is destined for a brilliant academic future and already has tenure at a university when they marry. He too, when he meets Lila, at the house of Marcello Solaris, who lives with Elisa, Elena’s younger sister, is drawn to his wife’s brilliant friend, affected by her, in a way he doesn’t seem to be affected by others. He describes her as highly intelligent, but evil.
Lila is on the way up, Michele is obsessed with her, in the similar way his brother was, and wants to own her and be near her. He hires her, paying her thousands of lira a week to manage his computer stock system for his stores. Lila picked up programming skills from Enzo Scanno, who saved her after Nino had deserted her, the former fruit and vegetable seller, bringing up the bastard child, Gennaro, whilst living in San Giovanni, near the sausage factory. Elena gets published and, later, is much praised for her insight into working conditions of woman in the sausage factory that leads to violence, but much of the writing is culled from Lila’s notes. Lila wants to return to her former home in Naples, and Enzo a devoted follower gives her what she wants. Lila admits she’s not really interested in sex, always found it disappointing, but hints she might sleep with Enzo, as a kind of reward for his unfailing love and loyalty, which she values more.
Elena loves sex, but doesn’t really love Enzo. Although making her pregnant with a boy and girl, he’s a bit of a disappointment in that regard and more generally. But she and her friends are over thirty, she’s no longer able to write and settled for domestic existence. She still fantasizes about Nino and when Enzo bring a university colleague home, Elena tries to hide her delight. Nino is married and has a daughter. His wife is rich and loves him, but Nino, finally admits he loves Elena. Love conquers all –only it never does, if you are Elena Ferrante (or mankind, generally). I look forward to the next instalment.