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Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay - Elena Ferrante

This is a great series (or rather, a great book published in several volumes), and it only improves as it goes. In this third volume, Elena and Lila are both young women; Elena is now a published novelist engaged to her university classmate, while Lila begins the novel working in a sausage factory.


My standard disclaimers about these books: 1) Ignore the covers. I know this looks like a sentimental novel about motherhood that you’d buy discounted at the grocery store. It is none of those things (well, except that it is a novel). 2) For the love of God, do not read them out of order. Starting with this book would be like skipping The Fellowship of the Ring in favor of The Two Towers, or beginning halfway through War and Peace – i.e., you will be needlessly frustrated and confused and will not fully enjoy the story.


At any rate, these books are very consistent in style and quality, so assuming you paid attention to disclaimer #2, you already know whether you like them. This is the one where Lila has a very intense experience with the workers’ movement (though in truth everything in these novels is intense; that’s Ferrante’s writing for you) and Elena becomes a successful novelist and then a dissatisfied housewife. There’s a slight sag as the book moves quickly through the early years of Elena’s marriage, but it quickly regains its stride.


These books do a great job in their portrayal both of complex characters with conflicting motivations, and of a complicated society in violent flux – there is just so much here: communists vs. fascists, tension between students and workers, the arrival of feminism in a still-traditional society, social class and the difficulty of mobility and the sense of alienation from one’s roots for those who are upwardly mobile, and a very tough look at marriage and motherhood and love and sex – all of it wrapped up in this story of two women trying to figure out their lives. I’ve just eaten up these books; the characters and their surroundings feel completely real, and the writing is urgent and vivid and electric. There is not a traditional plot arc, but you cease to notice because when a book is alive enough, literary conventions feel beside the point: the stuff of lesser, more predictable authors.


At any rate, I feel enriched for having read these first three books, and am missing them already now that I have to wait for the fourth and final volume. The translation will be published in September, however, so now is a good time to start if you haven’t already!