It's the narrative voice that beguiles the reader further into Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. That voice belongs to Elena, one of the two major characters in the book. It's a matter-of-fact, serious, rigorously intelligent, deeply honest voice that pushes until it understands the truth behind what happens.
Elena is one-half of a grade school BFF [Best-Friends-Forever] duo; Lila is the other. When Lila and Elena were young -- primary school -- they shared a fierce intelligence, which was enough to set them apart from the others in their Naples slum neighborhood. They were alike in most respects, and necessary to each other in their differences, a complimentary set of psychological near-twins. Now, later in life, time, economic circumstance, personal experience have split the two of them. The rites of friendship remain, the reality doesn't.
I saw Lila for the last time five years ago, in the winter of 2005. We were walking along the stradone, early in the morning and, as had been true for years now, were unable to feel at ease. I was the only one talking, I remember: she was humming, she greeted people who didn't respond, the rare times she interrupted me she uttered only exclamations, without any evident relation to what I was saying. Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn't have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn't have the desire, didn't see the use.
The sense of loss is palpable. In Elena's description, Lila is unhinged, dissociated from the conversation with her best friend, too worn down by life's "sandpaper of torments" to revive their intimacy. Elena's grammatically clumsy formulation of the past -- "So many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years" -- implies her own uneasiness around Lila.
There's another thing: while Elena is honest about the problems, there is no explanation of Lila's dissociation. This situation is extraordinarily strange, but it is not discussed, except for being put under the rubric of "too many bad things." Through Elena, Ferrante elegantly combines two discordant techniques: mystery and rigorous analysis. As readers, we want to know: What is going on here? Who is this narrator? Who thinks like this and yet accepts this kind of behavior?
When they were children, Lila was the more forceful of the two, fearless in speech or action. She still is. Elena describes her as having a "stubborn unreasonableness that refuses to accept half measures." People were naturally drawn to Lila, her personality, good and bad, always on display. Elena, on the other hand, was disciplined and, not surprisingly, did better at school. More hidden, she was less attractive. Elena was allowed to attend school past the fifth grade. Because Lila was not, the two were split, separating those who leave and those who stay.
What the two of them are leaving, or where they are staying, is usually called the neighborhood, their spiritual home, a Naples slum. The grinding poverty, its just-below-the-surface violence, stays with the characters, even if the arc of their lives lets them escape the slum's geographical borders.
The city seemed to harbor in its guts a fury that couldn't get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone, children, adults, old people, visitors from other cities, Americans from NATO, tourists of every nationality, the Neapolitans themselves. How could one endure in that place of disorder and danger, on the outskirts, in the center, on the hills, at the foot of Vesuvius?
Because they are women, the effect is magnified by a factor of -- well, choose your own number. In Elena's words, the default mode of Naples' inhabitants is marked by "the vulgar pleasure of bullying, the unpunished practice of crime, the smirking tricks of obedience to the law, the display of profligacy ...." Elena has worked hard to overcome the stain of her lower-class origins, but the intellectual sophistication is a veneer, while the underlying reality -- "I was raised in a Naples slum" -- remains her secret that surfaces whenever she fails to meet her own expectations. A sociological scapegoat.
The slum and its prevailing ethos are given as the animating cause of the novel's deeply fatalistic outlook. The characters rise and fall as their fortunes fluctuate. In the United States, this would be a cause for hope. But the people seldom find joy in good fortune; they are too aware of the underlying doom.
As Lila and Elena walk along in the novel's opening scene, they are told a body has been found. It is one of their female friends, once beautiful, once married to one of the neighborhood's mobsters, once housed in a magnificent apartment with a view of the harbor. She has grown fat, her face unrecognizable. Suicide? murder? natural causes? It doesn't matter, she ends up as garbage on the street. Surprising but customary, in equal amounts.
By the time Those Who Leave begins, the two girls are in their twenties. Lila has fallen on hard times, working at a sausage factory, the job a personal favor from one of their childhood friends.
Elena, meanwhile, has graduated from university and written a well-received novel. She is engaged to Pietro, a classics professor, and will move to Florence. Her career is in its ascendancy, and she thinks she has, at long last, surpassed Lila, a long-time goal. On the surface, there couldn't be a greater difference between the two.
But maybe not. In terms of sociology, Elena seems to have succeeded by attaining a middle-class life with an intellectual husband. But each of the two women is acutely aware of the other in terms of personality, apart from the transient sociologic situation. And each admires the other for qualities they don't have themselves. In Lila, that's bravery; in Elena, it's discipline. Even though Elena writes a book, she knows she wouldn't have been capable of such a project without Lila's example. Even though Lila wrests success out of failure, she knows her own impetuousness brought her down. Elena would have never slid that low.
Although the relationship between the two was (and sometimes still is) close, there are huge cracks: resentments, a boatload of competition, anger and probably guilt. And love. They define themselves in terms of the other, the only aspirational standards they have had. They desire to outperform the other; but they expect the other to outperform them, and they are unhappy if the other doesn't.
Nino Sarratore, a recurring character in the Lila-Elena story, is from the neighborhood, though he escaped to become a geography professor. At the beginning of Some Who Left, he comes to one of Elena's readings for her novel. Immediately, Elena feels a primal attraction for Nino, even though she is about to be married to Pietro.
Nino reappears at the end of the Some Who Left, some years later when Elena has become dissatisfied with Pietro. Without much thought, Elena throws over her comfortable middle-class life, her two children, her boring husband, and takes up with the vastly more sophisticated, much more attractive Nino. In effect, she has become Lila, who did the same thing (with Nino) years before. The act adds another layer of meaning on Those Who Leave. As the novel ends, Elena is taking her first airplane ride, sitting next to Nino, caught in the nexus between her past and her future. At this point, the narrative voice, Elena's voice, is caught in the moment, the prisoner of its own desires, unable to question the meaning of things. Elena wants. Elena acts. Like Lila. It can't end well.