Life Is Grand II (Touch My Wife and So Help Me God I’ll Slit Your Throat)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante.  Book Two of the Neapolitan Novels.  Europa Editions.  471 pp. $18.00.

I thought when I began the Elena Ferrante novels that I would read one volume, read a couple of other books, then come back and read another.  I figured I’d eventually read all four.  But each volume has proven more compelling than the last, so I’m a third of the way into the third volume before I’ve had a chance to write about the second.  I want to talk about things that happen in the third volume but haven’t finished it.

My wife had preceded me in this enterprise, then had to do some reading to prepare for classes, so now she’s back in the second volume while I’ve moved on to the third.  As I was reading through the second I kept saying, “Your jaw would drop if I told you what’s happening.  You wouldn’t believe it.”  And I believe I was two-thirds of the way through the volume when I said, “These girls are still just seventeen years old.  It’s hard to believe.”  They seemed at that point to have lived more life than most forty year olds.

And last night, as we lay in bed, and my wife told me where she was in the second volume, at a most perilous moment (“Just tell me he doesn’t kill her,” she said), I said, from my vantage point of the third volume, “That all sounds so idyllic now.  That sounds like paradise.  Things have gotten so much worse.”  Worse probably isn’t the right word.  Just more serious.  More political.  In some ways, of course, better.

I’ve always felt, at least in this country, that we all have opportunities to screw up and still recover, that somebody—for instance—can goof off in high school, go to some crummy college, then put together a great resume, go to a superior grad school, and create a wonderful career.  I know people who have done that.

That doesn’t seem as true in the Neapolitan novels.  Lila—who is ostensibly the brilliant friend of the first volume—makes a decision early on not to go on with her schooling.  Her family needs her to work, and there are lots of things she can do; she seems like a bright energetic person who is full of life and will always make her way.  Her father is a cobbler, and she designs a unique and beautiful shoe.  Some guys finance the line of shoes, and she opens a shoe store that is uniquely designed, becomes a gathering place for people.  The same guys own a grocery store, and she can work there too; she figures out the finances of the place, runs it more efficiently.  She can do any number of things.  The heavy plodding Elena, sometimes doing well in school, sometimes faltering, seems the one who is lost.

Yet Lila’s decision looms larger and larger as the story unfolds.  Ending her schooling closed off all kinds of possibilities.  And though things look good through most of this second volume, the world she lives in seems small, while Elena’s, toward the end of the volume, opens up.  It isn’t just a matter of brilliance, or uniqueness.  It’s a matter of the decisions they made.

It seems predictable that both of these young women would fall for the same guy.  They were rivals in everything else; now they’d be rivals in love.  The man in question is someone who’s been around forever, Nino Sarratore, an older guy who was known as a brilliant student in their school and whom Elena always had her eye on.  She imagines all kinds of possibilities with him even though not much goes on between them, even while she has another boyfriend (having a boyfriend in this culture more or less means you’re headed for marriage; that’s just what happens), and even while Nino has another girlfriend.  All that doesn’t stop Elena’s racing mind.

Lila in the meantime is married (remember that?  from the first volume?).  She’s run the grocery store, run the shoe store.  People are deeply concerned that she hasn’t produced any children, even though it seems to have been only a matter of months, and she’s only seventeen.  But her husband is doing well with his business, he can let his wife do what she wants, so he sends her off for a long vacation at the beach where she can exercise and sit in the sun, and her health will improve.  She has plenty of money, so she pays Elena—who had been working in a bookstore—to come along.  Lila’s mother does the cooking, and her sister in law, Pennucia, comes to have a vacation too.  Lila’s brother has married her husband’s sister.  It’s all one big happy family, and the men visit on weekends.

But there’s trouble in paradise, and it shows up in the form of Nino Sarrante, who’s spending the summer studying for exams with a well-off friend.  Elena by that time is free of her boyfriend, Nino seems to be hanging around, and her mind goes wild, despite the fact that he still has a girlfriend, the daughter of one of their high school professors.  The two young men seem to be spending much too much time with this trio of females, two of whom are married.  But it looks like an opportunity for Elena.  Finally, despite all the studies he’s supposed to be doing, despite the girlfriend he’s supposed to have, Nino makes a pass at … Lila.  Not since the movie Revenge[1] has a romantic overture made me so nervous.  Elena, of course, is heartbroken.

Why does love work out this way?  Why does the guy always fall for the wrong girl, the one with a thug of a husband who also has a bunch of thuggish friends?  Why can’t he see that, despite Lila’s dark intensity, her brilliance, the blond, softer, bosomy Elena is really the better choice, and she adores him?  What’s wrong with him?

As I said about the movie Brooklyn, it would be a crime to reveal how this whole thing plays out.  I do believe people should follow their hearts in matters of love, but maybe not in every single case.  I also understand that it’s imprinted in Lila’s genes what she is going to do in this situation.  She never does the prudent thing.

The Neapolitan novels have been widely hailed as one of the great portrayals of female friendship in literary history, and I agree, but they are also much more.  They tell the story of a whole place, a whole group of people, and an economic class; it’s amazing how that place, and those people, stifle individuals, and try to bury them.  The narrative itself seems natural and artless but was obviously created with the highest art.  I don’t know how Elena Ferrante did this (in addition to having no idea who she is).  It is a compelling reading experience like no other I can think of: I don’t want to go to the movies at night, don’t want to watch the bowl games, I just want to read this book.  I went to the bookstore on Christmas Eve because I was afraid I’d finish volume two and wouldn’t have volume three, and the bookstore would have been closed.  It would have been torture.

One of the unique things about Elena Ferrante is the way she lingers endlessly over one part of the narrative, like that summer at the beach, then suddenly swoops forward, covering years in a few pages.  Poor plodding heartbroken Elena finishes high school, then, with absolutely no resources to continue, hears of a college in Pisa that will give her a full ride if she gets in.  As keeps being true in this novel that she is narrating, we only hear her distorted point of view, so she totally screws up the entrance interview, but then gets in.  She moves to Pisa, has a room of her own, meets a whole new kind of people.  In the meantime, she has managed to lose her virginity, in a moment that wasn’t her finest hour, but she did do it on her own terms.  She has a couple of boyfriends in college, gets serious with one, and on a whim one weekend after she has graduated writes a narrative of some things that have happened to her, including that loss of virginity.  Her boyfriend passes it around among the family, they’re impressed by what she’s done, and it gets published.  She’s a novelist!  Another way the whole story seems autobiographical.

Lila, meanwhile . . . But I promised not to tell you that.  She seems like a different person by the time we get to volume three.

[1] In that film, based on a Jim Harrison novella, Kevin Costner is in Mexico and makes a pass at the wife of an older Mexican landowner, played by—who else?—Anthony Quinn.  It’s not a great idea to start an affair with the young beautiful wife of a powerful Mexican landowner.