My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

6 November 2015
Prologue and Childhood (18 chapters)
I’m finding this extraordinary. Some writers can capture childhood, and Elena Ferrante is one of them. She describes life in a tiny dirt-poor neighbourhood in Naples in a different decade from when I was growing up (although, if I’m honest, not very different) and the only thing I don’t recognise are the names. Ok, the topography isn’t the same either, and southern Europe is a lot warmer than in the north, but Ferrante gets it so right that none of these matter. Some of it is painted in broad strokes – the child’s complete unfamiliarity with any concept of the passage of time, or the certain belief that one of their neighbours is literally a doll-stealing ogre – but other parts have the fine detail of a miniature. The tacit arrangement between the two girls, not yet officially friends, that determines where each of them sits on either side of a grid in the big courtyard. The meagre set of found objects – pebbles, pieces of glass – that assume jealously-guarded value as playthings. The absolute certainty of the local pecking-order, and of how both adults and children are locked into patterns of behaviour that seem eternal. Until, that is, something changes and reality is pushed off-balance for days, weeks, or forever.

I’m reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. That book came as a complete surprise too, another first-person narrative describing a childhood spent by a girl who always seemed to find herself subsumed into the stronger personality of another. In Housekeeping it was first Ruth’s younger sister, then the aunt who comes to look after them. In this novel the brilliant friend – and it isn’t yet clear whether that title will turn out to be ironic – is the grubby, badly-behaved, utterly self-assured force of nature that is Lila. In the first chapter of Childhood – I’ll come back to the prologue – we get the incident that seals their friendship after those tentative days (or weeks, or months) during which they gravitate towards the grid in the yard. Lila is pushing Elena, the narrator, to the utmost limit of their courage – and, in a move that Elena later tries to decide is offering comfort or seeking it for herself, Lila reaches for her hand. They are approaching the door of the local ogre, and… and we don’t learn the outcome until many chapters later.

Ferrante describes not only the certainties of our early years but how, over time, these turn out to be no such thing. Elena is the pretty, hardworking girl determined to stay top of the class so that her parents – and in particular her hated mother – won’t have an excuse for taking her out of school at eleven. But at the age of only six, Lila reveals that she is far and away the cleverest. By second grade she is beating older children in tests that are like educational show trials, organised by the teachers for reasons Elena can only guess at. Are they taking bets? In the test that comes as a kind of climax, when the girls must only still be about seven, Elena watches as Lila does her best not to beat certain other children, all boys. She realises that Lila is bearing other things in mind, that it wouldn’t do to humiliate the sons of particular parents in the neighbourhood. It’s a kind of diplomacy, and Lila only breaks her own rule when Enzo, the boy who pretends to be a dunce, suddenly starts to call out answers and her hand is forced. It sets up a childish feud that ends in the stone-throwing incident we’ve already heard about, the one that humiliates Enzo and scars Lila’s forehead, possibly for life.

I feel I’m going into unnecessary detail. It doesn’t really matter who is on whose side in these feuds, and sometimes the adult Elena, narrating this, reminds us of the fuzziness of her own memories. In the prologue she is in her sixties and Rico, a man she knows, has phoned her to report that his mother is missing. She isn’t only missing. Elena finally get the useless Rico to realise that his mother – we know by now that it is Lila, but not that this is the brilliant friend – has gone for good. She hasn’t only taken everything she owns, as he confirms by looking in all her wardrobes and drawers, but has entirely removed any evidence of herself in the house. She’s even cut herself out of old photographs. ‘She wanted not only to disappear herself now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.’ The narrative that begins in Chapter 1 of Childhood is what Elena decides to write after she’s come to this conclusion.

Childhood certainties. I’ve mentioned Elena’s status as teacher’s pet. She loses it when Lila proves to be, however implausibly, an analytical genius… and then she regains it, at least twice. Firstly, Lila is too restless and badly-behaved to sit passively next to the teacher, so her time there is strictly rationed. And secondly, at the end of grade school, when Lila’s parents refuse point-blank to let Lila take the exams for what seems to be a highly selective ‘middle school’. It’s roughly at this time that the certainties of the friendship begin to be shaken. There’s a day of truancy, suggested by Lila, which goes so wrong – they become hot and hungry on a road to nowhere – that Elena can only believe that Lila planned it that way. And, suddenly, there is another friend on the scene, apparently offered equal status with Elena herself. What’s a girl to do? If she’s like our mild-mannered narrator, she’ll go along with it.

And there are adult certainties. The ogre… proves not to be an ogre at all when finally Lila picks up the courage to knock on the door of his tenement flat. This is the denouement of that terrifying incident first described in the opening chapter – and he turns out to be grubby, overweight and, crucially, ‘ordinary’. The girls’ story of the theft of the dolls, although nobody is saying anything, is suddenly a childish fantasy. Later, the same man is murdered and another neighbour, contrary to everybody’s expectations, is arrested. Lila, especially, is shocked, because she’s stated categorically that the murderer had to be a woman.

But some certainties remain. There is no place for a woman except in the home, with a husband – of any worth or none – and children. A woman whose husband dies early on (not the ogre) soon becomes ‘the mad widow’, mistakes another man’s kindness for something else and abuses the man’s wife incessantly ever after. This only stops when the man and his family move out. He works on the railways and an apartment – shock, horror – in a less poor district has become available. The mad widow makes her feelings known by throwing most of her worldly goods into the yard as they stack the removals cart. A flat-iron which narrowly misses their son would have killed him. Now I think of it, this boy is Nino, the one who made Elena her first ‘offer of love’. Other events – it hardly matters which – have unsettled her, and she refuses.

Lila’s fate at the end of this section seems to be sealed. Her father is resolute that if neither he nor his (not very bright) eldest son carried on at school, then neither will any daughter of his. She talks to Elena as though she is going to the school with her but, in spite of her legendary forcefulness that usually carries all before it, it seems even more of a fantasy after her father breaks her arm. That’s how fathers behave in this world.

19 November
Adolescence, first half – to the summer on Ischia
I’m half-way through this 220-odd page section that completes the novel. At the point I’ve reached, both girls are fourteen, and their adolescence turns out to have been as intense and full of incident as their childhood. Or, rather – and this is in no way a surprise – Lila and her family continue to live life with the volume turned up very high indeed, and Elena somehow participates in it. She worries that whenever she and her friend lose contact for a while she is diminished. ‘It was an old fear, the fear that has never left me … that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.’ This observation comes as she spends time on Ischia, courtesy of a cousin of the teacher who has taken her under her wing. She writes long letters to Lila who, left in Naples at a moment of crisis, has yet to reply to any of them. What is Lila going to do about the proposal of future marriage from the son of the successful local businessman whom she threatened to kill only a few months previously? Her parents want it, of course – there’s the obligatory joke about her father threatening to break every bone in her body for her own good if she refuses – but Lila is as resolute as ever. She always seems to be able to see a much bigger picture than anybody around her…. She just seems to see more.

It’s this new way of seeing that opens Adolescence. As with Childhood, Ferrante begins with a key moment some time into the story then backtracks to start again at the beginning. It happens at a kind of battle of the New Year fireworks, and Lila notices a strange thing. This section of the novel opens with it: ‘On December 31st of 1958 Lila had her first episode of dissolving margins.’ This isn’t something that is easily explained. ‘The term isn’t mine. She always used it … the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared….’ What Ferrante is doing, I suppose, is preparing us in advance for the vivid insights that Lila starts to have into – what? Into how things work, how people connect not only with each other but also with an increasingly problematic past of Fascist and other allegiances. Pasquale, one of Lila’s many admirers and the son of the communist who killed the ogreish neighbour, gives her a lesson in the city’s recent history. The suddenness of the effect is striking, as though the scales that always limited her childhood perceptions have fallen from her eyes.

It’s a few chapters in when not only the girls but the whole neighbourhood have a ‘dissolving margins’ moment. After the hasty removal of the innocent-seeming man and the mad widow’s distraught response… the widow receives a book of poetry written by him. He, a mere train conductor, has been able to publish a book of poetry. This transforms Elena’s view of him: that somebody from their neighbourhood could be a published author…! The girls have been fantasising about making their fortunes as writers – Elena is very impressed by Lila’s short story, The Blue Fairy – and here, apparently, is Donato Sarratore doing just that. Lila knows a slim poetry book never made anybody’s fortune, but the Elena is captivated…. And there’s more. Sarratore has written a dedication in the book to ‘Melina’, the widow, and has marked with red ink the poems he says he wrote for her. It seems that he isn’t as innocent as he appears – and perhaps the widow has good reason for what had seemed an overreaction.

It comes as no surprise that the narrator knows so much about her friend. There are times when she and Lila talk endlessly – although, once the narrator goes first to the local middle school and then to the high school in the city, sometimes there are long gaps – and these are the moments when Elena really feels that she herself comes alive. Early on, she realises that only Lila can make her feel that her studies have any meaning or importance. She had been about to fail after her first year but Lila, who has been studying in private (when not failing at the secretarial school she attends briefly, then doing chores around her father’s shoe-mending shop), more or less forces her to study properly during the summer for re-takes in the autumn.

Ferrante does several things at once with this intense, unpredictable friendship. It creates a plausible set of circumstances for Elena’s own sudden blossoming into the hardest-working and most successful student in her year. And it sets up another theme: how to describe aspects of life that have nothing to do with book-learning? Describing the friendship to a boy who is interested in Lila (there are a lot of those, especially as she emerges from her scruffy childhood self into a striking-looking beauty), Elena explains her difficulty in ‘having to search for words on a subject where I didn’t have words ready.’ So she exaggerates, doesn’t do justice to the nuances of the friendship. But through Lila and her very different life and insights, she has a route into important sides of life she could never get on her own. And there’s more. Lila’s incisive mind ‘intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.’ This is fairly early on, when Elena is still doubtful of her own abilities. Before our eyes, we can see Lila taking her out of herself and into new realms not only of thought but of expression. The working girl, grounded in what Elena sees increasingly as the real world and forced into borrowing books from a local library using tickets her family would never use, is vital to her own intellectual development. For instance: ‘for an entire summer, she tormented me with a single concept that I found quite unbearable. I’ll try to summarise it, using the language of today, like this: there are no gestures, words or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit.’

Until this point, the neighbourhood they have grown up in is simply a given, it is what it is and the inequalities and hierarchies seem to have been there forever. But Lila, and therefore Elena too, now understand that there was a ‘before’ that they never dreamt of. And it’s very ugly. Suddenly, among a lot of other things, this novel starts to be about the growth of a new generation’s awareness of recent history. How old are they during this summer? No more than fourteen, and yet decades later the adult narrator is still – she reminds us by referring to ‘the language of today’ – coming to terms with what she learnt from her friend then. It’s an intellectual symbiosis which, she implies, has never come to an end.

But this is much more than a Bildungsroman. At least as many pages are devoted to the complex social background as to the story of the precocious and strong-willed friend helping the narrator to find her voice. And it isn’t merely a stage-set. They – especially, in Elena’s presentation of it, Lila – are a part of this chaotic-seeming society, and it is part of them. For a start, there’s puberty. Elena gets there first, develops breasts that boys want to see (she lets them, at the age of about eleven, before she learns that this sends all the wrong messages) and becomes altogether more rounded and conventionally pretty. Lila, after a year or more when she seems small and stick-like compared to the others – there are others – eventually overtakes them all in every way. The inevitability of this other, physical development, and the seeming inevitability of the boys’ reactions in 1950s Naples, play as big a part in the story as what is happening in school….

…and I realise I’m making distinctions that Ferrante herself doesn’t make. Those ‘dissolving margins’ that affect Lila’s perceptions also apply to Ferrante’s own project: everything and everybody in this little world is bound by inextricable connections. So, for instance, Marcello Solara, the son of the successful businessman. He and his brother really do behave as though their money and the car they drive confer special privileges. They cruise alongside attractive girls, including Elena – sensible enough by now to reject their crooning invitations to join them. So they try it on with Ada, one of the three or four other girls that Elena and Lila regularly see. She doesn’t reject them and spends a mysterious hour in their company, returning looking flushed…. I wondered if there might be the scandal of a pregnancy, but no. Ada is part of an ever-changing network of friendships and family allegiances and, by the time the boys try it on with a group of girls that includes Lila they realise they’ve made a mistake. Lila has taken to carrying a leatherworker’s knife with her, and this is the one that she threatens Marcello with. She actually draws blood from the skin on his neck and nobody – including the reader – doubts that she is prepared to cut his throat.

It isn’t that Lila and Elena simply have a wider circle of friends. They do, and they include Gigliola, the girl that Elena found intrusive when she first joined them when they were about eleven, Carmela who wants to be called Carmen, Ada…. But girls in this world have brothers, fathers and other family connections that become an ever more important aspect of the intertwining stories we’re constantly getting. So those New Year’s fireworks parties aren’t really about celebrating the turning of the year. For some time now, they have become a battle for status, a battle always won by the Solara family. They can afford more fireworks than anybody else, but this year Lila’s brother Rino would love to outshine them by creating a better show. He can’t fight Marcello, the one who has insulted his sister, so he saves all the money he can to get at them this way instead. It’s hopeless, of course – until Elena and Lila receive an invitation from a boy who is interested in one or other of them….

This is getting complicated. The boy is Stefano Carracci – son of Don Achille, the ogre of the childhood chapters, now dead. Lila turns down the invitation, telling him they have made other arrangements: ‘Pasquale and Carmen Peluso are coming to celebrate with us.’ This is supposed to eliminate any further talk – because their father is the man in jail for murdering Stefano’s father. But guess what? This means so much to Stefano that he invites them as well, along with Rino. The Carracci family hate the Solaras – for the moment, I’ve forgotten why – and they are spending a lot of money on enough fireworks to outdo them. Rino’s contribution, if they all come, will be a great help.

Ferrante makes this episode do a lot of work. She opens the Adolescence section with it and, as a set-piece scene, it comes to represent a scaled-down version of the ‘men’s wars’ that the narrator has referred to several times. And it shows that allegiances can be re-drawn, old battle-lines can be abandoned in the pursuit of – what? Love? Principle? New grievances? The boundaries, as Lila perceives for the first time this very night, are becoming blurred. Whatever, it doesn’t work for the Carracci brothers. The Solaras’ firework show seems to come to an end, so Rino and the Carraccis can go out with a bang, literally. Except… the Solaras have more fireworks after all – and, at the point I’ve reached, it’s Marcello Solara’s proposal of marriage to Lila that her father is insisting that she must accept.

One last thing in this section so far. Lila, uninterested in the secretarial school, spends more and more time at her father’s shoe-repair shop. Rino, six years older than her but not very bright, has been happy to set his sights low and follow the trade that his father has made a living at for most of his life. But their father is a highly skilled shoemaker, and this sets Lila thinking about what they could do together if they tried. The possibility of making real money becomes another theme, one that fires Rino’s imagination, as she designs a pair of shoes that they make secretly over many months. Their father must not hear of it – but Rino has not kept quiet outside the shop. He has let the Solaras know about how they will soon have a moneymaking business of their own, and Marcello calls his bluff. He arrives where they live and asks to try on the shoes…. Disaster. They are very good, but full of little faults that Lila and her father can see but that Rino can’t. It causes a big fight between Rino and his father, and we await developments.

It’s time to read on.

27 November
Second half of Adolescence – to the end of the novel
This is where Elena comes face to face with the break she feels has to make. At first it looks as though it’s Lila who’s breaking away, into a world of glamour and wealth. She’s a real beauty now, looks like an actress on the arm of the young man she’s agreed to marry – not Marcello Solara, despite his tireless efforts and the television he buys for Lila’s family – and she suddenly has enough money to eat in restaurants that are much too fancy for her old friends. But some time before the end it’s clear to Elena that it’s all an illusion. Lila isn’t the one who’s breaking away. She’s the one who’s staying in their old world, with her ambitions reduced almost to nothing and her horizons so circumscribed she wants a honeymoon as near to Naples as possible.

In these chapters, Ferrante relies more than ever on the memorable image, the telling moment of realisation. Just before the wedding that brings the novel to a close, Lila has Elena accompany her to deliver an invitation to their old primary school teacher. This woman is proud of how she has been able to help Elena. She tells her favourite pupil that she remembers Lila – she calls her Cerullo – but says she doesn’t know the girl in front of her and won’t be coming to any wedding. It’s an awful moment that feels like a kind of bigotry, akin to when the same teacher once asked Elena if she knew who the plebs were. But, at the wedding, Elena decides that’s exactly what she is, and always will be if she makes a choice like Lila’s.

This is the dilemma that ends the novel. Elena is sixteen, in her third year of the high school, and can’t actually believe that her studies will get her anywhere. She has a charming boyfriend – Antonio, the car mechanic son of the mad widow – but, of course, she can’t have any kind of interesting conversation with him. The only one she can do that with is Nino, the boy who tried to kiss her when she was about thirteen, older than she is and the cleverest boy in the school. She has already set a deadline, months earlier, that she will split up with Antonio after Lila’s wedding and see more of Nino. As the novel ends, it looks as though that’s what she’s definitely going to do, despite Nino’s apparent lack of interest. That kiss was a long time ago and things got complicated with Nino at the end of her holiday on Ischia….

I need to rewind back to that summer a year and a half before Lila’s wedding. The Sarratore family come to stay on Ischia, and Elena is charmed by them. The father, the railway worker poet, is the kind of father any girl would want – considerate, kind and always putting other people’s needs before his own. And yet Marisa, the daughter, tells Elena that Nino is pretending to have too much work to do, and won’t come to the island until his father has to go back to work.

When Nino does arrive, Elena finds it hard to connect. He takes himself very seriously – which she, not yet fifteen, finds highly intimidating. Why can’t he be as charming as his father? When she does eventually get to talk to him a little, he accuses his father of the worst hypocrisy. The affair with the widow, he says, is typical. Elena doesn’t believe him, thinks he is just being a typical adolescent son. Hah. On Elena’s fifteenth birthday she is tired and emotional after Lila finally does send a letter – I’ll get back to that – and she is having trouble sleeping. And who should come to her makeshift bed in the kitchen but – guess? The father. He says all the things he clearly always says to vulnerable women, promises to come back the next night and do what he says she must want him to do – he’s already been stroking inside her knickers – and she leaves before anybody is awake next morning. She’s troubled – until that moment, she tells us, she had never ‘touched’ herself like that – because of the pleasure mixed with the disgust. And Nino, who has left the island some time before this, is somehow tainted by association. She doesn’t really speak to him again for over a year.

Ok. Elena’s growing awareness of her own sexuality runs parallel to her recognition of her increasing powers as a writer – and, inevitably, she uses Lila as a benchmark in both respects. Back in school after the summer, Elena teams up with Alfonso. He isn’t as bright as she is but is from her neighbourhood – he’s the younger brother of Lila’s fiancé, for goodness’ sake – and soon he’s almost her boyfriend. But not quite. There’s something more viscerally masculine about one of the boys in their little gang, Antonio the car mechanic, and he’s the one she starts to go out with. She soon gets into what the Americans would call heavy petting, wonders if Lila is doing the same with her fiancé. Lila, despite the vicious rumours circulating about her, says not.

As for her development as a writer…. I wrote some time back that this novel is much more than a Bildungsroman. But I think that in these last hundred pages or so the balance is tipping in that direction. I mentioned the letter that arrives from Lila on her fifteenth birthday on Ischia. Elena is knocked out by its style as much as its content, looks back on the chatty, girlish letters she herself had written before giving up, and is mortified. She tries, and fails, to write a reply using a similar voice to Lila’s. Her birthday is turning into a nightmare – and, perhaps because Ferrante likes to show how successful novelists operate, it’s on that very night that she has Sarratore make his move. It’s a key event, not unlike the one Lila reports in her letter: as she tries to cope with the struggles in her life Lila, in the kitchen, is astonished by an explosion. A huge, twisted hole in a copper pan makes it look as though it’s been shot… and Elena remembers that a long time ago, when Lila was reporting on the murder of Don Achille, it was the blood spattered on to a copper pan that made the description so vivid. She, like Ferrante, knows how to use props in her narratives.

Somehow, along with her studies – she’s regularly getting tens in almost every subject now – Elena has got to learn this. And reader, that’s exactly what happens. What she has always liked about Lila’s style is how it somehow sounds like Lila herself speaking to the reader. That’s what she tried to imitate when she wrote her abortive reply from Ischia. But it isn’t until over a year and something like fifty pages later that she begins to succeed. (I’m mentioning pages because I get the sense that Ferrante feeds these moments into the story at regularly timed intervals.) It’s examination time, and Elena’s teachers praise the style of a particular piece of hers. ‘And only as I listened did I realise what I had tried to do in those months whenever I tried to write: to free myself from artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila’s in the Ischia letter.’ There you have it. At last, Elena has learnt this vital thing from her friend – and, crucially, ‘it wasn’t Lila’s way of writing, it was mine.’ She has found her voice at last.

Except…. As Elena lets Antonio believe that he is the one for her, she is sure that it’s Nino she loves. Despite everything, including certain mannerisms that remind her of his hated father and an arrogance that lets him disregard almost everyone and everything around him, she decides that only Nino can offer her what she needs. A chance to impress him comes along: when she argues with the theology teacher and is reprimanded for it Nino asks her to write about it for a cheaply printed local journal he works on. She spends a difficult day thrashing an article into shape – but she isn’t satisfied. She runs it past Lila, who at first refuses to look at it. But when she does, she makes enough small changes to transform it. Elena hands Lila’s fair copy to Nino as her own work – and, when he reads it, he is rueful: yes, he admits, she writes better than he does. He doesn’t know what we know… and I wonder whether this thread will continue in the second novel.

Other threads. Despite everything, Elena continually shows herself to be part of the world that her education seems to be forcing her to turn her back on. Especially, she takes for granted the behaviour of the men and boys around her. When she is out with Ada, Carmela and Gigliola the boys are fiercely protective of them. If any young man shows too much interest, they are quick to bridle, show they are ready to fight. Elena notices when Nino doesn’t behave like this, and can’t help thinking the less of him for it. Almost imperceptibly, it becomes something else on the list of Nino’s drawbacks. The boys in the gang are Enzo, Antonio and Pasquale, all of whom have at some time shown an interest in Lila. Even when Lila is engaged, they are still quick to protect her reputation. Pasquale, in particular, seems ready to fight with anybody who says a word against her. And Elena describes Enzo, at one point, as reducing himself to a rectangular block holding himself in Lila’s defence. She’s learning how to use the crisp image.

As for Lila…. Her story is as important as Elena’s in this section, despite their lack of regular contact. When Elena is on Ischia, Lila is having to fend off Marcello. But the way she is eventually able to get rid of him is troubling for Elena, and she conveys this to the reader. She throws in her lot with the Solaras’ great rival, Stefano Carracci, the one whose firework party they attended that night. What does he have? Enough money to let her fulfil one particular dream, that of creating the ‘Cerullo’ brand of shoes – by the end of the novel, her father and brother Rino have three apprentices and are producing shoes which are, as near as they can make them, to Lila’s original designs – and to pay for dresses and hairstyles that seem to raise her on to a different level of beauty. She outclasses everybody.

Except, as I’ve already said, she doesn’t. At the wedding that takes up the final chapters all that Elena can see is one big compromise after another – and this from the friend who, as they grew up, never compromised on anything. The shoes, she feels, are all that remains of a childish fantasy of escape from their world of poverty – her father has to smuggle secret design changes past Rino and Stefano to make them viable – and the apartment overlooking the sea (and, let’s face it, the railway line) is no real escape. Luxury fittings, like expensive dresses, come to represent something seductive and ultimately spurious, and Elena isn’t fooled.

Novelist and narrator work together to undermine not only Elena’s sense of who she might become – I’ve said enough about that already – but Lila’s too. Her husband-to-be insists that it would be prudent to invite a member of the hated Solara family to give the after-dinner speech. It is clear that Stefano’s family and friends are getting better wine and better service than Lila’s, and that the Cerullos are spoiling for the kind of fight you get at the weddings of this sort of people. (This is when Elena agonises over her own plebeian status.) But what Ferrante clearly feels she needs is another one of those crisp images to underline the ambiguity of the path that Lila has decided to take. Over a year ago, Marcello had bought the pair of shoes that Lila herself had helped her brother to make. Then Stefano had bought them. But now Elena sees Lila turn pale, ‘and her eyes had that sudden contraction that turned them into cracks.’ What is she staring at, that is giving her a look that Elena fears could break the bottle in front of her (another crisp image, now I think of it)? ‘Marcello had on his feet the shoes bought earlier by Stefano, her husband. It was the pair she had made with Rino, making and unmaking them for months, ruining her hands.’ What secret agreements have been reached between her new husband and the man she would willingly have murdered? What new world of secrets and lies exists that this most perceptive of girls has allowed herself to miss? We can only guess, because this is how the novel ends.

I don’t feel I’ve done justice to this novel, and there are a lot of things I’ve left out. But maybe, when I read the next instalment – and I’m not sure exactly when I’ll do that – I’ll have a chance to return to some of them. Not least to the twin ideas, that I’ve hardly touched on, of whether Elena and Lila are really two sides of the same person, twin alter egos of Ferrante herself. Or about which one is ‘brilliant’ (not that it’s an exact translation of the Italian anyway). Near the end, it’s what Lila calls Elena – and, despite her own doubt, perhaps she is. She’s the one who has really used her experiences – all her experiences – in order to learn. As things stand at the end of this novel, you can’t say that about Lila.

And what about the names? Lila/Lina? Elena/Lenu/Lenuccia? And do identities shift as fast? Don’t get me started.

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