The second in the trilogy of books about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. The first book My Brilliant Friend I reviewed here.
Both girls were bright students in primary school, and perhaps because the story is narrated from Elena’s perspective she often sees herself in the shadow of her friend Lila, as if she must strive to attain her success, while Lila’s comes more naturally.
Lila fights to elevate herself, suggesting Elena studies with her to help her friend, thereby attaining the knowledge herself and through imposing her will on her husband, her family and business associates, who need her input and influence which she uses to both help them and to ensure her often rebellious stance is understood by them all.
It is Elena who despite her family circumstances progresses through high school and at the suggestion of a teacher applies to a university in Pisa where she can continue her studies.
Lila whose beauty and bravado bring her more to the attention of local boys wanting to move themselves up in the world financially, becomes entangled in their schemes and part of their negotiations and is married at sixteen to Stefano the grocer, partly in order to avoid the attention of the Solara brothers.
“How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.”
Through her personal notebooks that she entrusts to Elena for safekeeping and Elena’s inability to withhold from the temptation of what they offer, we too as readers understand more from within the bounds of Lila’s marriage and life than we might otherwise from the limited perspective of her friend, particularly during the frequent periods where the friendship was being tested and therefore withheld.
Though unwilling to be trapped inside marriage, Elena does envy her friend the space and luxury her new status as Signora Raffaella Carracci has given her and when Lila’s husband suggests a summer holiday on doctor’s orders to increase her chances of conceiving a child, Lila’s insistence that her friend accompany becomes Elena’s excuse to find a way to be in close proximity to Nino Sarratore, the brilliant student she has had a crush on for years. His arrival becomes a turning point in their lives, though not the outcome either of them were wishing for.
Elena distances herself from Lila and from her family and moves to Pisa, where initially she struggles to brush off the ways of her neighbourhood, her origin, her accent, things that make it obvious to others she is not one of them. She throws herself into her studies and into becoming more like her contemporaries; a new boyfriend aids her transition.
“That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them….
They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labours or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia?…
And would my body too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body, but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighbourhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire,…”
Leaving Naples allows Elena to begin to reform herself, to blend in, the novel highlights the tension between the Neapolitan dialect spoken in her neighbourhood and the correct Italian spoken by the professional, educated classes. Dialect is associated with aggression, insults and anger, with all the negative emotions and difficult challenges of a repressed community, while the Italian symbolises upward mobility and refinement.
I found Book 2 just as engaging as Book 1, more than just narrating the events that mould the two girls’ lives is the underlying philosophical question of whether one can rise above one’s origins via the attainment of significant wealth or education. Elena and Lila represent these twin avenues, in their attempt to escape their origins.
The novel continues to focus on the friendship of the two girls and their connections with others, both those from within their sphere and those they encounter outside, a measure of how far they have progressed in their aim to rise up and out of the confines of the neighbourhood.
The narrative is less dramatic than it might be by some of the omissions. Elena doesn’t recount much of her own dialogue with her boyfriends and much of the story is narrated or told, rather than putting the reader in the midst of the events as if to experience them. It is the psychological and philosophical elements of the placement of the two women in these situations that lend themselves a kind of accepted inevitability, we won’t be shocked by anything that happens, knowing their backgrounds, it is the lure of that question of whether either of them can or will escape their fate that entices us to read on.