Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay came out in English just over a month ago and is the third installment of The Neapolitan Novels, a projected series of four novels by the Italian author Elena Ferrante. Not much more than the scant cover-jacket bio is known about Ferrante. Supposedly, she has a classics degree, teaches, and translates. She was also born in Naples, where these novels mostly take place. Ferrante refuses in-person interviews and any type of public appearance, so that’s it, and even less: Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. But, after reading her work, it is not difficult to understand Ferrante’s choice of anonymity, for as the protagonist, coincidentally named Elena, says, “I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including—I said emphatically—what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.” That’s exactly what Ferrante does.

The Neapolitan Novels follow the story of Elena and Lila, who grow up in a gritty neighborhood controlled by the Camorra and haunted by memories of WWII fascists. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” writes Elena who, at sixty-six, narrates from sometime in the 21st century. The people in these novels live on the edge: the edge of the city, the edge of street-begging poverty, the edge of insanity, and the edge of brutality. Street fights and domestic abuse are commonplace. Children are fluent in the nastiest obscenities. Hardly anyone goes to university.

The real edginess of these novels, however, is found, not in the cruelty of enemies or an unjust system, but in the violence of friendship. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena recounts her and Lila’s relationship through childhood and adolescence. Counter-intuitively, they become friends the day Lila shoves Elena’s doll through a grate into an abandoned cellar. Elena remembers, “I knew that Lila was mean, but I had never expected her to do something so spiteful to me. […] I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila.” Despite this betrayal, Elena follows Lila everywhere and does everything she does because, “in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave with her something of mine that she would never give back.” Elena’s need for the “dazzling, terrible” Lila, who excites her imagination and electrifies her intellect, is a major theme throughout the novels. This need is so powerful that it can be felt in the writing: if some parts of the novels drag, it is because Elena, without Lila, is herself dragging.

This need, though, goes both ways, and these two girls’ destinies seem bound together in an intense series of reversals. When Lila shines and proves to be the smartest student in the school, Elena always comes in second place. However, when Lila’s family refuses to pay for further schooling, it is Elena whom Lila calls, “my brilliant friend.” When Elena spends a summer on an idyllic island, her life is “splendid but uneventful,” whereas Lila’s is “dark but full.” Elena notes, “It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other.” These reversals continue throughout their lives, increasing in intensity as their worlds become more and more complicated with husbands, children, lovers, and social movements.

There are moments of tenderness between Elena and Lila—some crumpled lire snuck from a husband’s cash register to help pay for books, a vigil during a feverish night—but these are few and far between. Instead, Lila’s words take sarcastic turns, transforming her into malice itself, and when Elena takes care of an ailing Lila at the end of The Story of a New Name, she writes, “I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won.” Compassion is tainted by ego. Admiration is laced with jealousy. Faithfulness is tinged with hatred.

Both fellowship and rivalry fuel Elena and Lila’s relationship, bringing out the best and worst of these incredibly human characters whose “good and evil are mixed together and reinforce each other in turn.” The Neapolitan Novels are often described as portraits of female friendship, and they are. But that epithet can be misleading, for the relationship between Elena and Lila is far from comfortable, far from sleepovers and heart bracelets. No, Ferrante does not redefine friendship, rather her brilliance lies in her daring to portray a truer bond, one between broken people in a broken world in which the rub—the chafing—often accompanies and sometimes overpowers the balm of intimacy.

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