This is the second of the Neapolitan tetralogy; I didn’t find it as compelling as My Brilliant Friend, but it did hold my interest nonetheless.
The book picks up just where the first one left off – Lila’s marriage to Stephano. As foreshadowed, the marriage is not a happy one. Though Lila has exchanged names, she remains confined to the old neighbourhood and way of life. Love gives her a means of escape but only temporarily. Meanwhile, Elena continues her studies which take her from Naples to Pisa. The book covers about 7 years, until the two friends near their 23rd birthdays.
The book touches on love, jealousy, marriage, and, most of all, friendship. The friendship between the two young women continues to be a roller-coaster ride. The rivalry certainly continues. In the first book they compete over academic success; this time they compete over men. Lila’s “yearning to dominate” (163) continually surfaces. Lila even admits, “’I always have to prove that I can be better. . . . I’ll cheat you all . . . don’t trust me, Lenù, don’t trust what I say and do’” (144). When things don’t go her way, Lila becomes “mean, treacherous” (161), “spiteful . . . [and] truly hostile” (163). She humiliates Elena but still begs, “’Even if you’re better than me, even if you know more things, don’t leave me’” (145).
Elena is repeatedly told that she is better than her friend: “’You are much better, you’re prettier and more intelligent’” (286). But neither these comments nor her success guarantee self-confidence: “I hadn’t really succeeded in fitting in. I was one of those who labored day and night, got excellent results, were even treated with congeniality and respect, but would never carry off with the proper manner the high level of those studies. I would always be afraid: afraid of saying the wrong thing, of using an exaggerated tone, of dressing unsuitably, of revealing petty feelings, of not having interesting thoughts” (404 – 405). Though she has left Naples, she continues to feel trapped by her background and by societal conventions. She also continues to feel beholden to Lila; in fact, she thinks Lila’s childhood story is “the secret heart” of the novel she writes. Elena can never escape her connection to Lila.
It is the consistency of character behaviour that is impressive. The Lila and Elena of the first novel are the Lila and Elena of the second; they are older and have experienced more life, but their personalities have not changed. When the young women react to events, the reader cannot but exclaim that yes, indeed, that is what they would do.
As I mentioned, the second book, like most sequels, is less compelling than the first, but I am still interested in discovering how Elena’s journey of self-discovery continues and how Lila will continue “to make things happen” (237). On to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.