Surprisingly, I got through the third entry in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels much quicker than the first two – maybe because of greater familiarity with her style. In this novel, Elena/Lenú and Lila, the two girls we first met as young children in My Brilliant Friend, are now grown women entering their third decade. At the conclusion of the previous book, Lila left her husband and ended up in poverty, working at a sausage factory and enduring miserable conditions and sexual harassment, whereas Lenú left Naples for Florence, got engaged to a young professor from a distinguished academic family, and became an accidental published author. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that their respective fortunes will seesaw throughout the book, as will their difficult relationship, which persists despite the two young women losing contact for years and Lenú admitting, at one point, that true heart-to-heart intimacy is no longer possible between them.
Despite the changes in their lives, at the core the two women remain the same: Lila plows ferociously through life, getting involved in the class struggle and political upheaval of Italy at the time, Lenú experiences life mainly as an observer. Even though she escaped her old neighbourhood and the cage of poverty, her marriage turns out to be a cage all the same, and she struggles to find her own voice as a writer as well as coping with demands of being a wife and mother (a shiny happy look on motherhood this book isn’t).
Ferrante’s writing is as wonderful as ever, but since most of the book follows Lenú’s own life this time, I rather missed the setting of Naples and the old supporting cast of characters, who do appear but are given less time or are simply mentioned by other characters. The passing of years was at times hazy and took me unawares – at one point I went, oh wait Lila’s son is already 10 years old? Also, a certain character who I hoped was well out of Lenú’s life comes back, causing me to groan a bit. It was the first time I felt like Ferrante’s tale got too soap-opera-ish and it’s also my own personal peeve against the “heroine pines after a man who is SO not worth it” story trope. These issues aside, it’s still a fantastic, intelligent, visceral, multi-layered read. Bring on the final fourth book!