My rating: 4 stars
Elena and Lila’s friendship is at the forefront of the first two books in the Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name (about which there will be spoilers), despite both also featuring various social considerations. In História de Quem Vai e de Quem Fica (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in the English translation), on the other hand, Elena Ferrante chose to focus mainly on Elena’s personal tribulations and on various political issues. Nevertheless, for the most part, it is still as engaging as the previous novels.
The book starts with Elena remembering the last time that she saw Lila before her disappearance. She hopes that Lila will somehow discover that she is writing their story and will reappear, since she has forbidden Elena to ever write about her. She then turns her attention to the last event from the previous book, more than 40 years beforehand. After encountering Nino Sarratore at the presentation of her book, they went out for dinner with other two companions. She started doubting her capabilities again. She didn’t know enough about the topics that they were discussing – the political situation in Greece, the prominence of the students’ movement throughout Europe – which led her to feel inadequate.
Although she was not particularly attached to Naples anymore, she returned there for a while to stay with her family. She spent her time gathering information about what was happening around the world, while dealing with both the positive and the negative reviews of her book. People from the neighbourhood were only interested in asking her about the spicy parts, which vexed her.
She soon went travelling around Italy to promote the book, though. One of the cities that she visited was Milan. There, she met people who made her ponder what she really wanted to do in life and what her expectations were. As she was engaged to Pietro, she questioned whether their marriage would work, considering their disparate backgrounds.
When she returned to Naples again, she soon received a visit from Pasquale and Enzo. They had a message from Lila – she wanted to speak to her urgently. During their meeting, after a long period apart, Lila made Elena promise that, if something happened to her, she would take care of her son. Elena then recalls the difficulties that Lila had to face, which led her to make such a serious request.
Elena showed great concern for Lila. Although it may seem as if they were growing apart, since their lives were now very different, their close and convoluted bond was still very much real. Lila’s actions revealed some hidden jealousy, despite her also wanting Elena to succeed. The conflicting feelings that Lila had to deal with are believably portrayed. She always felt the need to prove that she could be as good as or even better than the people around her. But now she was also very much afraid.
The majority of the book focuses on Elena’s domestic life and existential doubts. She struggled to be herself and to deal with the many changes in her life, some of them a direct consequence of her decisions. The narration becomes more detailed and introspective as the story progresses, which turns the book into an overall engaging depiction of fear of failure, dissatisfactions, and the desire to experience more fulfilling activities. Nevertheless, the novel is occasionally too melodramatic, particularly some of the last chapters.
Set in the final years of the 1960s and in the 1970s, it delves even more explicitly into social and political issues than the previous books. The middle classes and the university students talked about the subjugation of the working class, but they had no practical knowledge about the issues that the factory workers had to deal with. They spoke about everything in abstract. The conflict between the fascists and the communists is further explored. And there are also various mentions to sexual harassment, the perpetrators being from all social classes.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is as compelling and readable as the previous books in the series. Some of Elena’s feelings seem to be excessively overstated. But only the last instalment in the Neapolitan Novels will prove such portrayal altogether justifiable or not.