Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
As Ruth at onthearmofthesofa pointed out in the comments on my review of The Story of a New Name, I am not exactly renowned for my self-restraint when it comes to a book series. True to form, I couldn’t stay away from the next in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels series for too long; by the second day of my holiday, I had decided that I needed to step back into the world of Lena and Lila to see what was next for them. I will say that I felt this novel wasn’t as strong as My Brilliant Friend or The Story of a New Name, but I was still utterly absorbed by the continuation of Lena’s recollections. I did finish the book with an impulse to throw it in the river, but that was another matter entirely; sometimes the sign of a good book is the genuine frustration felt when a character makes a truly terrible decision.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay follows Lena’s life now she has left her childhood neighbourhood, in contrast with Lila’s life once she has decided to return. Although the friendship between the two is restored early on in the novel, it disintegrates as their paths radically diverge; both are unhappy but unable to understand the life of the other. Lena struggles to adapt to both married life and motherhood alongside her writer’s block; meanwhile, Lila’s later struggles are mostly out of the reader’s eye, back in the old neighbourhood.
Despite the initial happiness I felt for Lena in managing to leave the neighbourhood, she gradually becomes less and less likeable throughout the course of the novel. This was something I struggled with since, for all her flaws, Lena had remained a fairly likeable narrator in the first two novels. Whilst this perhaps contributed to my finding this the weakest novel in the series so far, I still found that I was rooting for her to make better decisions. I shared Lila’s frustration that, despite Lena’s obvious anger at her situation, she was throwing away everything she had worked so hard for. Indeed, I found myself sympathising more and more with Lila over Lena throughout this novel, a situation that had been quite rare in the previous two novels.
I found Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay to be a well-written, cleverly crafted narrative with characters that come to life in the midst of the turmoil of the world they inhabit. Although the focus of the novel shifts from the neighbourhood to Lena’s married life in Florence, the characters from the neighbourhood remain full and flawed in the reader’s mind as they move in and out of Lena’s life. By contrast, her husband, Pietro, has less depth throughout the novel: a detail that perhaps reflects the fact that Lena is struggling to understand the man she has married. Since Lena’s view of him after they’ve married is that he is someone who cares solely about his work, this is the picture she presents to the reader. Taking this aspect along with the title gives an interesting insight into Lena’s character, and perhaps a foreshadowing of her actions at the end of the novel: for all the work she has done to remove herself from her childhood, she will never be able to fully step away from that part of her life.
Overall, this was an intriguing installment of the Neapolitan Novels which has once again left me eager to discover what will happen next. Although I enjoyed Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay less than My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, it was still most definitely a well-crafted and absorbing novel. If you haven’t yet got round to reading the Neapolitan Novels, it is shaping up to be a series that I would recommend whole-heartedly; I’m looking forward to finding out what the final installment has in store.