Books on GIF #67 — 'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante


Happy belated new year, everyone! This Sunday's book is 'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante. 

Last month, I asked you guys to pick the book you wanted me to review first in 2018. You chose the third installment of Ferrante's Neopolitan Novels series, beating Min Jin Lee's 'Pachinko' by one vote. I'll review that book in the coming weeks, but I was pumped you guys wanted to kick off the year with Ferrante. Long-time readers of Books on GIF, who remember my reviews of 'My Brilliant Friend,' 'The Story of a New Name' and 'The Days of Abandonment,' know that when it comes to Ferrante, I'm like:  

I LOVE HER BOOKS SO MUCH. And I enjoyed this one, too, although I'd put it a notch below the first two in the series. In it we find Lila and Lenù, two women who grew up together in Naples and whose friendship is chronicled in the series, going in different directions. Lila, who has stayed in their hometown neighborhood, works in a sausage factory. It's a hostile work environment rife with sexual and other harassments that becomes a focal point for violent clashes between Communist labor organizers and fascist gangs. She eventually finds love, becomes a computer programmer and gets her life on track. Lenù, however, has left for Florence, after writing a semi-successful novel, to marry a young professor. They have two daughters, and Lenù struggles simultaneously to care for them and to write a new book amid her feminist awakening and a bad case of writer's block. For her, who thought marrying a prominent and intellectual man would lead to happiness, there's a lot of: 
She's trapped, paralyzed and exhausted by her family commitments, a husband who doesn't support her literary ambitions and by her rivalry with Lila. By leaving Naples, Lenù was supposed to be the successful one, the winner. And: 
 But she has not won. She's miserable. By the end of the book, Lenù faces another decision about whether to leave or to stay. I'm not going to tell you what she chooses, because it happens literally on the last page. Lenù, like many of us, assumed that she would find success once she left Naples and broke free of her family, her neighborhood and their backward ways. It's the Romy and Michele view: 

But though Lenù left physically, she stayed mentally. She has a hard time moving on from caricatures of people from her childhood that have become fixed in her mind. Bad people somehow have become good. Supportive teachers inscrutably become cold. Ferrante asks us: What are we truly trying to hold on to? What are we trying to leave? Is it really a house or a neighborhood or our family and childhood friends? Or is it ourselves and who we were when we lived among those people? Maybe adolescence was a joyous time for you among the cool kids. Speaking for myself, though, whenever I return to the town I grew up in or the city where I went to college, I struggle with memories of the person I was when I lived in those places. I often have to fight feelings of:
So I empathize with Lenù, even though she is a tough character to like in this book. Regarding which is better, leaving or staying, Ferrante provides no clearcut answer. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe it lies somewhere in between. What seems true, though, is that if we don't reconcile ourselves with the past, we will never escape it no matter where we go. That's an important message to start us off in the new year. 

My rating: 

'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' ('Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta') by Elena Ferrante was published in 2013 by Edizioni E/O and in 2014 by Europa Editions. 418 pages.

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What's next? Books on GIF will review 'Personal History' by Katharine Graham, 'Pachinko' by Min Jin Lee and 'Her Body and Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado, among others, in the coming weeks.

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Thanks for reading!*


* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!