The third in the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante is set at a time of upheaval and social unrest in Italy. In the aftermath of the 1968 protests in Europe, bombings and assassinations by both the left- and right-wing groups occurred throughout the 1970s. The lives of the two women at the center of these books (Elena and Lina) reflect some of the strife and social changes. My thoughts about the first two books are here: My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. While the soap opera-worthy events of their personal lives are riveting, the social changes they embody are the real story.
The clever but uneducated Lina is stuck in a miserable job in a sausage factory, living in poverty with her son and the kind Enzo while Elena promotes her book and prepares to marry Pietro, a successful young academic. Elena's sister-in-law (to be) is also an academic, but in contrast to Pietro, is politically active. At her house the beloved Nino from the old neighborhood turns up with a girlfriend who has a baby. Elena realizes that though he seduced women and moved on, he was not the predator his father was. He lived in a different culture where "there was no abuse of power, there was no guilt, only the rights of desire."
Lina's situation became intolerable in the factory and her health deteriorated. Elena stepped in and connected her with those interested in the abuses of workers. Lina presented the factory owner with a list of workers' demands. At that meeting the neighborhood strongman Michele Solara appeared and we learn that he is obsessed with Lina. Michele crushes anyone in his way and is especially unpleasant to women, but has a fear and respect for Lina that is dangerous for her. Lina and Enzo have continued their exploration of the new field of computers and with Elena's help have made connections with IBM and learn about punchcards.
Meanwhile Elena settles into her marriage and has two daughters with the professor whose inflexibility causes him problems in the new university environment. Elena begins to read feminist articles and books referred to her by her mother-in-law. She tries to talk about the concepts to Lina who reacts dismissively. Elena thinks
I concluded that first of all I had to understand better what I was. Investigate my nature as a woman. I had been excessive, I had striven to give myself male capacities. I thought I had to know everything, be concerned with everything. What did I care about politics, about struggles. I wanted to make a good impression on men, be at their level. At the level of what, of their reason, most unreasonable. Such persistence in memorizing fashionable jargon, wasted effort.
Elena visits with feminist friends of Mariarosa (her sister-in-law) and recalls her college boyfriend to whom she was grateful for all her taught her.
Maybe there's something mistaken in this desire men have to instruct us; I was young at the time, and I didn't realize that in his wish to transform me was the proof that he didn't like me as I was, he wanted me to be different, or rather, he didn't want just a woman, he wanted the woman he imagined he himself would be if he were a woman.
Around this time Nino comes back into Elena's life through a connection with Pietro at the university. Nino who is married with a son, visits Elena and Pietro and reads the manuscript Elena wrote based on her feminist writings. Nino rebukes Pietro for not encouraging Elena to exercise her intellectual energies and Pietro responds with this: "Elena can cultivate her intelligence when and how she likes, the essential thing is that she not take time from me." Goodbye, Pietro.
At the same time Elena reads and writes feminist works, she describes her efforts to look good for Nino. She changes dresses multiple times to find the perfect one, she puts on make-up upon rising when he is visiting. Her passion for Nino defines her, never mind her feminist thoughts.
The frightening Solara family turns up everywhere: after resisting him for years, Lina begins working for Michele in the computer business. She tells Elena she is using him, not the other way. Hah! And from Lina Elena learns that Marcello has scooped up her little sister and installed her in a beautiful home. Elena and her family are tricked into attending a birthday celebration for Manuela Solara, the loanshark and mother of Marcello and Michele.
The last volume was published this month and I'm torn between wanted to gobble it up and knowing I still have that one to read.
Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Europa Editions, 2014, 418 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.