The books starts with several pages of character biographies for readers like me who haven't read the earlier books. This one begins in 1978. Elena (the book's from her PoV) has left Pietro and their children. She's busy with book launches and a publicity tour. She has no fixed abode. Her new partner Nino claims to have cleanly split with his wife Eleonora and his children. Elena asks her children to live with her - "Bambine ... Voi volete venire con me o restare coi nonni?" Di quella domanda, ancora oggi mentre ne scrivo, mi vergono. Prima Dede, poi subito dopo Elsa risposero: "Coi nonni. Pero tu, quando puoi, torna e portaci dei regoli". (p.69) ("Children, do you want to come with me or stay with your grand-parents?" Even today as I write this I'm embarrassed by that question. First Dede, then straight after Elsa replied "With gran and grandad, but you can come and bring us presents whenever you like"). She doesn't seem to learn from that experience.
Years pass - Ci vollero piu di due anni pieni di gioie, tormenti, brutte sorprese e mediazioni sofferte, perche riuscissi a rimettere un po d'ordine nella mia vita (p.70) (It would take more than two years full of joy, torments, horrible surprises and mediation to acheive some order in my life). She walks into friend Franco's room, discovers he's committed suicide messily. Pietro finds a new, young partner. There's a renewed battle for custody of Elena's children. Nino and Elena find a house in Napoli. She gets the kids back from Genova/Milano. She finds out that Nino's been seeing the distressed Eleonora. Then she discovers that Eleonora's pregnant. Nino claims that it's to keep Eleonora calm. The birth of Lidia to Eleonora is reported upon only in passing, though I would have expected it to have had a psychological impact. Elena's still hoping that their unconventional situation is manageable. However, she realises that her return to Naples has affected her work prospects. Her children are unhappy at their new schools. And all because she wanted to start a new life with her lover who lied to her.
Elena's public statements about women's attitude to men don't match the way she lives - "Parlai di come avessi cercato da sempre, per impormi, di essere maschi nell'intelligenza - io mi sono sentita inventata dai maschi, colonizzata dalla loro immaginazione". (I spoke as if I'd always tried to have a masculine intelligence - I felt created by males, colonized by their imagination) And the political climate in Italian is volatile.
The culture of Naples doesn't figure for the first hundred or so pages but Elena eventually returns there - "Il rione per me, prima ancora che i miei parenti, era Lila" (p.105) (the neighbourhood for me meant, even more than my parents, Lila). Elena's doubtful about her old friend Lila, but leaves her children with her when suddenly Elena and Nino have a fortnight in the states - "Io, almeno, non sono mai stata piu cosi bene come in quei giorni" (p.121) (I had never felt so good as in those days). However, the trip's summarised in a paragraph. Elena and Lila are now pregnant, both worried about how to break the news to ex-husbands, lovers and children. Pietro and Nino both have political books out. Pietro's gets much more praise. Nino still spends half the week sleeping with his wife yet he's grumpy when Elena spends time socially with Pietro. Elena's sister has a baby. Elena's mother is diagnosed with cancer. All the events in this paragraph are rushed through in less than 15 pages. It sounds like the summary of a soap-opera where they couldn't afford to film abroad - or even outside. The Bologna bomb of 2 August 1980 gets the briefest of mentions.
Her mother's illness brings the two women together. From being the child her mother seems to most disliked, her mother admits that Elena's always been her favourite. Her mother thinks that Lila will put the neighbourhood to rights, using means fair and foul. Lila's business computing company, "Basic Sight", gives her access to compromising information. Elena comes to think that a lot's going on that she's not being told about. She thinks Lila knows something about Nino that she's not revealing. Elena takes advantage of Lila's fatigue to get the answers to some questions - e.g. Marcello (the partner of Elena's sister) is the neighbourhood's drug supplier. She knows that Mariarosa's a recreational user. But Lila tells her that a local boy overdosed recently. Elena thinks that some of her acquaintances might also be drug-takers.
The numerous comparisons between the pregnancies of Elena and Lila become irritating. Then, as if there aren't crises enough, there's an earthquake (23rd Nov, 1980). It upsets Lila sufficiently for her to have a bit of a melt-down, telling Elena about how she sees the world - her synaesthesia, etc. There's a lot of tell-not-show - "E ripeteva ossessivamente aggettivi e sostantivi del tutto incongrui con situazione in cui ci trovavamo, articolava frasi prive di senso e tutavia le pronunciava con convinzione, strattonandomi" (p.160) (And she obsessively repeated incongruous adjectives and adverbs in situations where we found ourselves, saying phrases that made no sense yet stated with conviction, pulling me). Elena has a baby girl, Imma. Elena's mother goes into a clinic. Elena learns where the money from to care for their mother. She learns more about the secrets of those she knows. It's hard for any 4 characters to be in the same room without a complex pattern of love, envy, secrecy and fear having to be dealt with. Elena's threatened, and told that Nino should stay away. Lila's life is at risk too. Lila has a baby girl, Tina, so again there's lots of compare/contrast.
Elena plans to write a novel - she needs the money because she has doubts about Nino's support. She thinks about how childhood friendships affect relationships with the same people later. She theorizes about the difference between male and female social interaction, particularly with respect to Nino, who seems to prefer female friends and thinks his friends cleverer than Elena's - [Nino:] "Be, la tua liberazione non deve significare per forza la perdita della mia libertá" Anche in frasi di questo tipo, pronunciate per gioco, riconobbi presto, con disagio, echi dei conflitti con Pietro (Well, your freedom doesn't mean I have to lose mine. In phrases like this, said for fun, I recognised with discomfort some echoes of conflict with Pietro). Then she catches Nino having sex with her (fat? uncultured? mature?) home-help. She learns that Nino has slept with many women she knows, including some that she's hosted meals for. She finally breaks up with him. She has intense sex with Antonio, an old flame, and others.
She soon moves with the children to a place above Lila, back in her neighbourhood. She manages to sell a novel that had been rejected years before, written while she was in Firenze but about her Naples neighbourhood. Lila's invited to read it first, but she doesn't. The book makes Elena more famous, but it causes trouble locally. "Cosa avevo fatto, come potevo essere stata così imprunte" (p.266)) she thinks. "Avevo scritto un romanzo" (p.267) (What have I done? How could I have been so thoughtless?), she claims, when (surprise, surprise) people treat it as documentary/autobiography. Lila and her see things differently - Elena thinks about principles and schools of thought but "A [Lila] interessavano solo le tristissime beghe locali" (Lila was only interested in local squabbles) (p.281).
Things take a turn for the worse. Carmen issues a legal complaint about the novel (an action paid for by Marcello). He made her do it by saying that he knew where Pasquale (her brother, who had killed Marcello's mother) might be in hiding. Alfonso (who works for Lila) is found dead. At the funeral Michele (brother of Marcello) punches Lila. Then Tina (aged 4) disappears.
A new part of the book, "Vecchiaia", begins. The narrative jumps 20 years. Elena's girls studied abroad (Boston and Paris). We learn that by 2003 Elena's published 13 novels. She publishes "Un'amicizia in 2007, about Tina. It revives her fame but she later regrets writing it. Then the events after the disappearance are recounted. Elena and her family stayed on after the tragedy, though Dede in particular was unkind to Lila, saying that she never wanted a third child anyway. People think Lila's repressed her feelings. Talking to Lila inspires Elena to write about her neighbourhood and the past. The Solari brothers are killed outside the church. Dede (Elena's daughter) goes out with Lila's older, workshy son. Under-age Elsa (Elena's daughter) runs off with him (with jewellery and money too). Next day Dede announces that she's moving to the States (can she even speak English?). Lila wants to sell her company. Pasquale's arrested. Enzo (Lila's partner) is held for questioning for a long time. Nino has become a parliamentary politician. Elena gets an interview with him, asking for his help with Pasquale. She thinks about Nino's past-romances, realises that they were often part of career tactics. She consequently worries that Lila's son isn't good for her daughters. Then Nino's disgraced politically.
This write-up makes the book sound as if it's just one damn thing after another, crisis piled upon crisis. But it's not hyper-realist disorder. Whenever the plot requires a trait, there's always a character at hand to add that trait to.
Lila ("appena scolarizzata", p.426, though she runs a software company) is writing about Naples without first telling Elena about it. She tells Imma though, who tells Elena - "Ebbi spesso l'impressione che Lila usasse il passato per normalizzare il presente burrascoso di Imma. Nelle cose napoletane che le raccontava c'era sempre all'origine qualcosa di brutto, di scomposto, che in seguito prendeva la forma di un bell'edificio, di una strada, di un monumento, per poi perdere memoria e senso, peggiorare, migliorare, peggiorare, secondo un flusso per sua natura imprevedibile, fatto tutto di onde " (p.418) (I often had the impression that Lila used to past to normalise Imma's confused present. In the Neopolitan events she talked about there was always an unpleasant cause that led eventually to the construction of a beautiful building, a road, a monument that lost its memory and purpose, got worse, improved, got worse again like an unpredictable flux made of waves). Lila mixes truth and legend. Elena thinks "Stavo per lasciare la città per la seconda volta, ... e tuttavia del luogo dov'ero nata non sapevo granché" (p.281) (I was again to leave the city for the second time ... and yet I didn't know much about my birthplace). She leaves by train for Torino in 1995, to work for a publishing company. She hopes to publish Lila's work as a book - she thinks it might be better, more enduring than her own books. Dede marries an Iranian (cue 9/11!) and has a child. At a family gathering, by a shelf of her books, Elena has a crisis. She evaluates her life - "Avevo calcato su certi temi: il lavoro, i conflitti di classe, il femminismo, gli emarginati" (p.436) (I've emphasised certain themes: work, class conflict, feminism, marginalisation). She thinks that "L'intera mia vita si sarebbe ridotta soltanto a una battaglia meschina per cambiare classe sociale" (p.437) (My entire life could be reduced to a petty battle to change class).
The section ends with Elena pondering why Lila cut her off after Elena's book came out - content or treatment? Well, Elena had promised not to write about the events, and the book had enhanced Elena's bank balance. In the book she pointed out that a doll that Lila had lost as a child was also called Tina.
In the 5-page epilogue Lila has disappeared. Her son doesn't seem to know where she is. Is she dead? Elena meets Nino at a funeral, asks him who took Tina, who killed the Solara brothers. Back home, a mysterious package appears - the dolls that Elena and Lila had lost in childhood.
There are contrasts drawn between her neigbourhood and elsewhere, between dialect and Italian, between literature and life, between rational and emotional. These contrasts are often personified by Elena and Lila -
- "Solo nei romanzi brutti la gente pensa sempre la cosa giusta, dice sempre la cosa guista, ogni effetto ha la sua causa, ci sono quelli simpatici e quelli antipatici, quelli buonii e quelli cattivi, tutto alla fini ti consola. Mormorò: può essere che Tina torni stasera e allora chi se ne frega di come è andata;" (p.429) (Only in bad novels do people always think the right things, every action has a cause, there are pleasant and unpleasnt people, good and bad, and a happy ending. She murmers: it could be that Tina returns this evening and then who cares how it happened).
- [Lila:] "Per scrivere bisogna desiderare che qualcosa ti sopravviva. Io invece non ho nemmeno la voglia di vivere" (p.433) (To write you have to want something to survive you. I however lack even the wish to live).
- [Lila:] "io non sono andata in giro per il mondo come hai fatto tu, pero, vedi, il mondo è venuto lui da me" (p.438) ... "[Lila] Non era mai salita su un treno, nemmeno per andare a Roma. Non aveva mai preso un aereo" (p.441). (I haven't gone round the world like you have, however, the world has come to me ... She'd never jumped on a train, not even to go to Rome. She'd never flown)
- "Sbaglio, mi [Elena] disse confusamente, a scrivere come ho fatto finora, registrando tutto quello che so. Dovrei scrivere come lei parla, lasciare voragini, construire ponti e non finirli, costringere il lettore a fissare la corrente" (p.155) (I've been wrong to write the way I have until now, recording all I know. I should have written as she spoke, left gaps, started connections but never ended them, made readers work out the flow)
- We're told that the dialogue switches between Italian and dialect, but there's little dialect in the book. Lina becomes Lila and Elena becomes Lenù. But the choice of language has a significance to Lila and Elena - "lei ricorreva all'italiano come a una barriera, io cercavo di spingerla verso il dialetto, la nostra lingua dell franchezza. " (p.344) (she resorts to Italian as a barrier, I tried to lead her into dialect, our language of honesty)
Events seem to contrived and schematic to me, without any compensations. Why does Elena bother with Nino? Why does she take so many chances bringing up her children? If she's that kind of person, why isn't she more aware of her tendencies? There's a lot of out-of-character behaviour by Elena and others. I don't see much point in the first 100 pages or so. But my Italian's not very good.
- Joanna Biggs (LRB) (the Neapolitan quartet also has an almost deranging narrative pleasure, delivered in a style that’s more of an admission that the author cares too much about the truth to bother with style. ... Ferrante is like a writer of genre rather than literary fiction in her handling of time; she has said she employs ‘all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity’ – acknowledging rather than excusing the soapy twists of the last volume of the quartet. ... How is it that a book written by Lenù can so entirely capture Lila’s experience? Ferrante’s direct, almost naive style is greedy, willing to adopt the habits of other genres – the thriller’s cliffhangers, the romance’s love triangles, the mystery’s plot twists – and to absorb voices other than its narrator’s.)
- Alex Clark (The Guardian) (That ambiguity is stitched into the novels, emblematised by the pair’s variant names (Lenuccia, Lenù, Raffaella, Lina), by the tension between Italian and dialect, and by the terrifying, recurrent episodes of dissociation that Lila suffers, and calls “dissolving boundaries”)
- Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) (Indeed, Ms. Ferrante’s writing — lucid and direct, but with a cyclonic undertow — is very much a mirror of both her heroines. Elena has a decidedly linear approach to life, and, as a narrator, she often takes a matter-of-fact tone, but that appearance of control belies the roiling, chaotic, Lila-like emotions beneath. This constant pull between detachment and turmoil (or, to put it in terms of the classics that the author loves, between Apollonian rationality and Dionysian ferocity) creates a kind of alternating electrical current that lends these novels a compelling narrative tension.)
- Joan Acocella (New Yorker) (She has two subjects, basically. The first is women. This is the most thoroughgoing feminist novel I have ever read. ... Ferrante’s other subject is language. ... Much of the thrill of the four books lies just in this elastic back and forth between realism and hallucination.)
- Jennifer Kurdyla (Harvard Review)
- Eileen Battersby (Irish Times) (Ferrante is so exhausting to read in one go not because of her intensity but because of her lack of humour. ... Elena’s career as writer within the novel is at best hastily outlined and never that convincing, ... Elena’s weakness, and possibly that of the entire novel, is Nino Sarratore. ... Ferrante’s vision is candid and fraught. She does not shape beautiful sentences; she articulates painful sensations and exposes nerve endings.)
- Suzanne Joinson (Independent) (Ferrante has achieved is a perfect marriage of immense storytelling with chillingly effective literary artistry. ... The emotional devastation is so intimately rendered that at times, as I read, I couldn’t breathe. I felt I was trapped in the inevitability of pain brought on by the circumstances of her social and biological destiny. ... I loved these Neapolitan novels in a way I haven’t enjoyed reading for a long time, owing to the immersion in another world ... Lila’s obsession with the architecture and history of Naples does not ring as true as earlier depictions of her complex, manipulative character. It’s a little contrived (a fact on which Elena comments), as is the return to a significant event from the very beginning. But this neatly sewn-up ending to what has felt unnervingly true provides us with welcome relief.)