Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels series opens with the last time Elena, a celebrated novelist, will ever see her best friend. In My Brilliant Friend, they grew up from childhood; in the second volume, The Story of a New Name, they found husbands. Now they're in their 60s and Naples is changing. In fact, all of Italy is in political turmoil.

Lila was once an entrepreneur but now works a brutal job on a factory floor and lives in a rundown building with her son. She urges Elena to leave her out of her writing; Elena does just the opposite. And with that, the story plunges back 40 years, picking up at the conclusion of the previous novel. When her old flame Nino shows up at Elena's book party, she's prepared to risk everything for him, including her engagement to another man.

The plot turns as relationships deepen and change. Children begin to resemble their parents. Lila's son, assumed to be fathered by Nino, starts looking very much like someone else. Lila gets caught up in the struggle for workers' rights while her friend becomes a famous debut novelist. Elena's attempts to escape the small-minded old neighborhood fail as forces of the past drag her home to try to save her younger sister from a disastrous marriage.

As Ferrante's series--best taken as a whole--moves forward and reflects European history, she seasons the prose with provocative perceptions, but her neighborhood of squalid blue-collar lives and passionate secrets is pure Italian soap opera raised to a loftier level of literary art. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

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