The third of the Neapolitan novels continues the story of the lifelong relationship between Elena Greco, the narrator, and Lila Cerullo who grew up together in poverty in post-war Naples. The book covers eight years (1968 – 1976) when the two young women are in their twenties and early thirties. The focus is on Elena’s engagement and marriage to the son of prominent intellectuals, the birth of her children, and the publication of her first book. Lila works in a factory and is raising her son virtually single-handedly but begins studying computer technology and working in this nascent field.
As in the previous books and as this title suggests, one of the young women leaves and one stays. Elena has left her home neighbourhood and ventured out into the larger world; in much of this novel, she lives in Florence. Lila, on the other hand, does not venture far. She describes their situation: “’You’re strong . . . I have never been. The better and truer you feel, the farther away you go. . . . I’m scared’” (177). But Elena admits that there is courage in staying: “I feel like the knight in an ancient romance as, wrapped in his shining armor, after performing a thousand astonishing feats throughout the world, he meets a ragged, starving herdsman, who, never leaving his pasture, subdues and controls horrible beasts with his bare hands, and with prodigious courage” (172). At one point, Elena regrets, “How much I had lost by leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life” (346).
And of course the two women take turns leaving the other behind. One will come to help her friend but will eventually feel, “I absolutely had to go” (217) and “it was really time to get out” (224). When the life of one is happy and successful, that of the other takes a downturn. For example, when the career of one stalls, the other finds a new career which brings wealth. Elena admits, “I had wanted to become something . . . only because I was afraid Lila would become someone and I would stay behind” (347).
One of the themes that takes prominence in this novel is that of the limited role of women in a male-dominated society. Elena discovers feminism and also the restrictions of marriage and motherhood. She marries an intellectual but he is very narrow-minded, objecting to her taking birth control pills. She explains that “my husband never praised me but, rather, reduced me to the mother of his children; even though I had had an education he did not want me to be capable of independent thought, he demeaned me by demeaning what I read, what interested me, what I said, and he appeared willing to love me only provided that I continually demonstrate my nothingness” (298).
The book also addresses sexuality and male sexual self-centredness. “To be made badly when it comes to sex means, evidently, not to be able to feel pleasure in the male’s thrusting; it means twisting with desire and rubbing yourself to quiet that desire, it means grabbing his hands and placing them against our sex . . . ignoring his annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep” (176). Elena describes sex with her husband: once satisfied, he did not seem “to understand that I wanted some part of his body to consummate, in turn, my desire” (253).
The two women remain true to the traits indicated in the previous novels. Lila is as mercurial as always and Elena as insecure as ever. It is increasingly obvious, however, that Elena can be as selfish, ruthless and manipulative as the friend she has described as mean. A mutual friend tells Elena, “’What you have, you deserve, you got it with hard work, without hurting anyone, without bullshitting with other people’s husbands’” (338), but that analysis proves not to be entirely correct. An acquaintance of both women says to Elena, “’You’re two pieces of shit and nothing can change you, two examples of underclass filth. But you act all friendly and Lina doesn’t’” (287).
Elena’s husband tells his wife that, “’[Lila] wasn’t at all my friend, that she hated me, that she was extraordinarily intelligent, that she was fascinating, but her intelligence had been put to bad use’” (340), yet the emotional attachment continues. Elena relies on Lila “to set my imagination in motion” (261), and claims that Lila’s intelligence has “influenced everything I’ve done” (225). On the other hand, Lila tells Elena, “’you’ve helped me since we were children, without you I’m not capable of anything’” (273). Elena claims that she is going to change: “I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult outside of her” (347), but that seems unlikely. Lila tells Elena that she cannot protect herself, “’Not from me’” (29) and Elena is the one who writes about her relationship with Lila after she disappears.
And now I’m off to begin the last installment in that story!