I feel I’m a little late in getting to the Neapolitan quartet of which this is the first book. Now that I’ve started on the journey, I don’t think I’ll be stopping until I’ve finished all four.
At the age of 66, Lila Cerullo has decided “no only to disappear herself . . . but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind” so her friend Elena Greco decides to write “all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory” (23). What follows is the story of the first ten years of their friendship, from the age of six to sixteen.
The two girls grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. Theirs is an intense but complicated friendship: they love and admire each other but they are also jealous and competitive, and though they long for freedom, they also depend on each other. Elena says that from the beginning “I decided that I had to model myself on [Lila], never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away. I suppose that that was my way of reacting to envy, and hatred, and of suffocating them” (46).
The two are foil characters. Elena is polite, obedient, dutiful, and well-behaved whereas Lila is impulsive and rebellious. Elena states that Lila “immediately impressed me because she was very bad” (31). Virtually everyone is afraid of Lila because “Lila was malicious: . . . she knew how to wound with words [and] would kill without hesitation. . . . an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila” (143). Even Lila admits, “’The difference between you and me, always, has been that people are afraid of me and not of you’” (294).
The similarity between the two is that both do well in school, Elena by dint of hard work and Lila through natural intelligence. Elena is the one who continues in school, but she clearly regards her friend as the brilliant one. At first both girls dream of escaping their patriarchal society full of ignorance, poverty and violence, but eventually Lila has little choice but to accept “the confines of the neighborhood” (79). The two girls end up taking very different directions in life and at the end, one wonders if Lila is correct when she calls Elena “’my brilliant friend’” who must keep studying and “’be the best of all’” (312). Of course, Elena, having chosen a path as a student is left feeling “completely alone” (322).
One of the themes is the tragedy of unfulfilled potential. Though Lila is the most intelligent student in her elementary school, Lila’s parents deny her permission to attend middle school and continue on to high school. Her father says, “’why should [Lila], who is a girl, go to school?’” (69) so their teacher, who had nurtured both girls, turns her back on Lila and tells Elena, “’And if one wishes to remain a plebeian, he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing. Forget Cerullo and think of yourself’” (72). Years later, this same teacher slams the door in Lila’s face: “’I know Cerullo, I don’t know who this girl is’’ (308). Just before a climactic event in her life, Lila says, “’But yes, look: the mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet.’ She turned with a sudden expression of fear. ‘What’s going to happen to me?’” (314) as though she knows both her potential and dreams will be unfulfilled. And the twist in the last paragraph suggests that her fear is justified.
One of the things that stands out in the novel is the violence of the girls’ world. They are surrounded by the macho behaviour of brothers and fathers who feel they must fight to defend their honour and that of their families. Insults are almost always met with violence. Elena admits, “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, . . . we grew up with the duty of making it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. . . . The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other’ (37). Elena witnesses a husband and wife fighting: he “yelled, threw things; his rage fed on itself, and he couldn’t stop. In fact his wife’s attempts to stop him increased his fury, and . . . he ended up beating her” before he threw his daughter out the window “still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing” (82). It is understandable why Elena wants to escape from her mother’s world (322).
There are a lot of characters so I was often confused as to who is who. It is easy to confuse Alfonso with Antonio. To complicate matters, people often have more than one name: Lila is also called Lina but her proper name is Raffaella; and Elena is sometimes called Lenuccia and sometimes, Lenù. There is an Index of Characters at the beginning and it is helpful, but having to check it frequently becomes annoying.
I’m hooked. I’m anxious to get to the next book in the series, The Story of a New Name, to find out what happens to the two brilliant friends.