I’ve finally finished the Neapolitan Novels! It took me seven months and at times I debated not continuing but I am glad that I persisted. The novels follow two women throughout their lives growing up and old in Naples, Italy in the middle of the 20th century. The first novel, My Brilliant Friend, depicts Elena and Lila in their elementary school days. The Story of a New Name picks up with the two women in high school and follows Elena to college in Pisa. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is about the two women as they learn how to be mothers and The Story of the Lost Child is the story of the two women as they have their final children and begin to age.
Warning: do not read ahead if you are worried about spoilers
The novels revolve around the central relationship between Lila and Elena. From a young age, Lila is the brightest student in her classes, and Elena dutifully follows her. The two girls turn to books to shelter them from the violence and poverty of their Naples neighborhood. Lila, however, is quickly drawn into this poverty by her family and childhood friends, while Elena escapes by continuing her education. The juxtaposition of the two women as they grow up becomes more evident as Lila marries a local merchant before she is 18 and Elena goes off to a top school in Pisa.
In the end of the series, the question is not whether or not education allowed Elena to escape the typical feminine trap of motherhood and the squalor of her Naples upbringing, but rather if the friendship has revolved around the exploitation of Elena by Lila. Has Elena’s life been a series of moves decided upon by Lila years previously? How much of Elena’s success as an author can be attributed to Lila, who has always pushed her to do more and better things?
I really thought for the majority of the first three books that the story was about Elena escaping from the typical story of a woman in Naples. Thanks to her education and drive to succeed, Elena would escape the fate of her mother, Lila, and all the other women who passed before her through the poverty-ridden streets of Naples. In the third book, however, Elena’s marriage begins to crumble and she starts an affair with an old school friend. The old school friend, Nino, already has numerous children with other women, and had previously been involved with Lila. Elena will not listen to reason and leaves her husband for Nino.
This affair drags Elena back into the world of Naples, and everyone is quick to remind her how they had expected more from her because of her education and modest reputation as a feminist writer. What ends up mattering in the end is Elena’s relationship with Lila, and when the two women have daughters at the same time (Elena’s with Nino and Lila’s with her business partner, Enzo), they become closer and decide to write about the violence in their neighborhood.
Their fragile relationship (hurt at this point by Elena’s relationship with Nino and Lila’s attempts to push Elena into writing about dangerous political topics) breaks down when Lila’s daughter, Tina, disappears. Tina is never found, and in the final pages of the fourth novel, it becomes evident that Lila blames Elena for this disappearance. The final page is almost uplifting, taking us back to the time as children that Elena and Lila lost their toy dolls and never recovered them. This loss of their dolls pushed them into buying Little Women, and set Elena on her literary path to success.
On the final page, Elena, an old woman living alone in Turin, discovers a package on her doorstep. Lila has now been missing for numerous years and Elena has had no contact with her. In the package are Tina and Nu, the two dolls who were thought lost all those years ago. You can take this either as Lila’s attempt to reach out and assure Elena that she is alive and well, or you can take it as Lila telling Elena that every move Elena has made since she was a small child was orchestrated by Lila.
Lila lost the dolls on purpose to push Elena into buying a new toy, a book, and from there Lila had pushed her to school, to study, to write about things that Elena would never have dreamed up without Lila by her side.
You can find my other reviews on the books in the series below: