Shoulda Coulda Woulda Book Review: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

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Time on to-read: Two years

Reason for not picking up: Third in the series, plus again I was ehhhhh on European literary stuff at the time- been to that rodeo too many times

Reason for finally picking up: READ MY REVIEWS OF THE FIRST TWO OH MY GOD.

Verdict: I cannot at all wait for the fourth one to be translated and appear in September.

Hello and welcome back to the third edition of Kelly Freaks Out Over Elena Ferrante Theater!

I hope that you didn’t come in here with the expectation that this was going to be the time that I got disillusioned with Elena, did you? Because that seems unlikely to happen. Ever. At least not with these Neapolitan novels. These things are like crack brownie ice cream pot (insert more adjectives that indicate addiction and deliciousness here) sandwiches. I will never say no to another.

In this book our two darling girls are now in their mid-to-late twenties. Lila is dealing with the aftermath of her decision, in the second book, to leave her husband and move in with a man who has loved her since she was a child (but never have sex with him). She is working long hours at a food processing plant, hired by someone else who once wanted to fuck her, and helping the man who took her in to study for a degree he is taking. Her family doesn’t speak to her, her husband barely acknowledges the existence of her child. Elena, meanwhile, has finished college and is married to her professor husband, from a good middle class family of lefty intellectuals and lives in a comfortable home in Florence. She has two children over the course of the novel and falls out of intellectual life and relevance after the publication of her first book, struggling with her motherly responsibilities and her growing understanding that her husband clearly wants a much more traditional marriage than he lets on. She is also cut off from her lower-class family now, in a way, since they do not want to deal with her, but she gets snippets of news from the old neighborhood and stays in touch with Lila.

So this is the part of your life, if you are following a life path similar to mine at least, where you start to lose touch with some of your nearest and dearest. Either that person is full enmeshed in transforming themselves, or you are completely absorbed by whatever project you’re working on, and they disappear off your radar for months or years. It isn’t that you don’t want to see this person, it’s probably more like you never divide your mental energy from whatever you’re absorbed with for long enough to be able to have the energy to call anyone. That couch looks sooooo good right now. And even in late 1960s/early 1970s Italy, that formula pretty much hold true. You might get something here and there from mom, or you might arrange a call after four failed attempts and hear something. But damn, its tough, even for near lifelong besties. Even if you know that that person will come back into your life eventually.

What sucks about this though… well, I don’t know if “sucks” is the proper word here. I think it needs something more- “maddening” perhaps, or probably “inevitable”… is it’s not like your brain just stops working the way it always has just because you don’t see the people you used to anymore. It’s not like you aren’t still measuring yourself against them with everything you do, wondering if they have time to write, if they are creating and growing and getting better while you drown, wondering if they’d still like you now, if you’re falling behind and becoming the failure you always knew you would be, even if only by comparison.

Because comparison is all that matters. Let’s be real. In considerations of success, which are usually tied up in class wars, in societal expectations, in your identity you built up for yourself, in family issues… it doesn’t matter how successful you are, you’ll only feel that way if your measuring stick isn’t too far ahead of you. Honestly, that’s what friends are for, sometimes- and sometimes it can be positive, it helps to push you and guide you and let you know when you’ve veered off course. And sometimes (more of the time) it’s utterly misery making. But when you love someone that much, respect them that much, have shared so much of your life with them, that’s how your brain works. You can’t calculate your life and what it’s worth without their presence. Wanting their approval and their love, even if only in your sick, sick imagination is part of how it goes. That’s one of the shitty underbellies of getting into a relationship, romantic or otherwise, with someone you respect. That respect becomes like food and fuel and fire to you, unless you can root them out of you. And I guarantee you, if someone’s got that many years and that much of a pattern in your psyche, they ain’t likely to be going nowhere.

So that’s the aspect of deep friendship we get this time- the kind that’s a worm in your brain even when the person isn’t even there. We already know that Elena and Lila are unhealthily entwined, and have only gotten more so over the years. Elena, of course, more than Lila, since she is the “inferior” friend in this partnership. Which I can’t even… is just so true for someone who is insecure and who has met someone who has all the confidence and easy intelligence you never will. You can go to college, marry up, meet a great set of in laws, publish a book, have beautiful children and material comforts and still think that this person is better than you and always will be. I can name four people in my own life who fit this bill and just forced myself to stop before I went crazy.

Ferrante does such a great job of dealing with this part of our lives where we transition into full adulthood. The sort marked by the events that oblige you to take on a role and an authority that you never had before- becoming a wife (which comes with far more expectations in 1970 Naples), becoming a mother and being in charge of someone, becoming old enough for people to look to you as an authority figure, succeeding in your career and having people ask you questions they think you know the answers to. She shows Elena dealing with an “imposter complex” in such a true to life, agonizing way. This is the “why are you looking at me like I know something?” transition into adulthood before you’re quite ready for the mantle- but there you are anyway.

I loved how she shows, even then, the pressure on mothers and wives to “have it all” and be it all, both to their husbands and lovers and to themselves. It’s all just some history repeating- if you’re not having kids, then you’re heartless and unnatural in some way, of course. But beyond that- how you marry an intellectual who seems to want your opinion and your criticism, but really he just wants unconditional support that he can assure himself is educated and could disagree, because he’s not an ape, god! How wives and mothers need to be obedient, but sexy and fiery enough to hold their man’s interest at the same time. How you need to be daring in writing, but not daring enough that people call you a whore. (Again, a lot more of a death sentence at this time.) Ferrante showed me Elena scratching and screaming to get out, in all the passive aggressive ways that we do that- by yelling at her husband when he’s had a bad day, by taking it out on the kids for a small mistake, by raging at the mirror when she looks like the mother of two she is.

I also, again, really liked the wa y that the surrounding world was woven into Elena’s story. This time period was highly political and volatile (as Italy’s politics have pretty much been, ever since WWII- pretty much a permanent hot mess with no solution). And if you pretend to be intellectual, or really in any way functioning and participating in society in an urban context, you’re going to have to have opinions and take sides and be judged. It wove through the story here particularly with communism and how all the characters interacted with that- clearly that was the Cool Kid Thing To Be at the time, and how each character tries to contribute to it (or at least be seen to be contributing to it) is so telling then, of their rank, status and what I’m meant to think of them as a person. Lila, for instance, Elena’s goddess she can never quite measure up to, even when she hates her, is the one who ends up doing the most concrete, visible thing that seems to make a difference, the thing that brings shame to all the ineffectual, pontificating intellectuals around her and shows them just how fake they are- while she is all the more authentic for being a worker herself. Another character reacts in a surly way to this, and then strikes a totally useless, bitter pose and becomes a layabout out of self-hatred. Elena is tongue-tied, writes some articles that she STILL gives full credit to her friend for, hating herself all the while for being less genuine than Lila. Her stiff, conventional husband doesn’t want to get involved, and refuses not to fail a communist student leader who didn’t do his work in class in order to help the class struggle- HOW UNCOOL CAN YOU BE, DAD! It was a great way to put us in the time and place without ever making some sort of preachy point of “and now here we are in this time” announcements. It’s as organic and natural and seemingly necessary as ever.

And of course, for the intellectuals among us, Elena’s journey towards trying to write a book after the success of her first and her years long break to have kids, rings super true. Her failed efforts, her feelings of self-loathing, her decision to give it up all together only to find herself writing again years later without any real intent to have done so, something entirely new and unexpected. That self-punishing creative process that we all think is special and unique the first time we go through it and then realize that that’s just how some of us wrestle the beast out of us. How much energy she puts into the pose of being an intellectual, rather than just thinking the thoughts and asking the questions and reading the books that would make you one, apart from whatever image someone constructs of you. It’s more important to be seen that way since someone did you the favor of giving you that label- you’ll watch it like the world’s most paranoid den mother to be sure it’s never wrested away from you.

Because of course what’s at stake, what’s always at stake in these novels is identity. For so long, your identity is tied up in who you spend your time with- your family at first, the only ones you are allowed to be around. Then friends, then more carefully chosen friends. Then your choices start to be taken into account in a wider sense and it gets higher and higher stakes as the years go on. Elena’s journey shows us how important forging an identity still is, even when you’re past thirty, with a family and responsibilities and, presumably, a better understanding of the mundane things that really make the world go round. In some ways it becomes even more important to have a very strong core sense of self, because there are a million things to be doing every day and you’ll never feel like you’ve done them all right, or enough of them. So you need to have a strong reason for doing everything that you do, otherwise you’ll really lose it. Children, spouses provide that anchor of course, but they are only something you’ve built onto your Self. That Self still needs to be there to let you know why you put in all the work those relationships mean.

And of course, here… it’s always going to be tied up in Lila. Elena will never be free of her, and that is what has made her who she is today.

I’m fascinated to see how we get from here to the sixty six year old woman we met in the flashback in the first book. I get where Lila comes from, what we’ve seen of her so far, but I really want to see her get over that hump with Lila. How does she detach, when do the fires go out? Does she really? Isn’t this book proof that she hasn’t?

See? Barely a single action sequence in these books and it’s as suspenseful as anything I’ve read. I can’t wait for the fourth book to be translated in September.

I can’t wait until all of you who have told me you will read these books catch up with me. Please tell me when you do so that we can talk about it. I want to gossip about this and dissect it like this is English 101- but with more sex and cocktails.

It’s incredible. I envy you if you haven’t read it yet for still having it in front of you. Get to it, soldier!

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