Elena Ferrante’s sensational Neapolitan quartet of books, centred around lifelong girlfriends, Elena and Lila in the gritty, working class Naples of the 1950’s onwards, continues with this second book. By now, readers having read the first book, My Brilliant Friend, should be familiar with the main players in this story (and if you haven’t yet read the first book in the series you really have no business picking this one up; the four books are meant to play out as one big novel, so continuity is a must) and this helps Ferrante drop us off right where the first book ended. Which is the wedding of Lila and Stefano Carracci, the murdered Don Achilles’ son and a wealthy grocer and potential producer of Lila’s shoe designs. However, in as much as it’s possible to have a cliff-hanger in a very real dramatic story on growing up in a tough, poverty ridden neighbourhood, the book ended on a note of impending doom. The Solaras, who Lila despises and had expressly forbidden her husband from inviting, strut in to the function and to make it worse, her erstwhile suitor (whom she hates the most), Marcello Solara, has on the very shoes which Lila designed and had gifted as a prized possession to Stefano.
With this prologue, the book sets its tone from the beginning. This is going to be a much more sombre affair than even the first one, with the shift in tone matching that of the characters’ growth to young adults and all the emotional and other strife that brings with it. Lila and Stefano’s relationship never recovers from the damage the breach in trust causes Lila as she gradually starts realising her husband is a much lesser man than it appeared during their courtship. A brutal consummation of his desire on their wedding night points to further fraying of their bond and Lila starts to resent everything about him, even as she starts playing a big part in the setting up of their new businesses, a new grocery and the shoe shop run by her father and brother (nominally, as the book progresses, as the Solaras slowly take over) in the centre of the city. Lila’s hate and frustration festers though, leading to an inevitable breakdown in their family fabric, especially considering her existing reputation as a troublemaker.
Meanwhile, Elena is having struggles of her own both at school and in a perpetually dissatisfied love life. When the book starts, she is seeing one of the young men she grew up with in her neighbourhood, Antonio, but pining after Nino Sarratore, son of the sleazy writer and poet Don Sarratore. Antonio is devoted to her, yet she knows she has to end it. Her struggles with these as well as her on and off entanglement with Lila and her complicated problems cause havoc in her school life before she decides to buck up and apply herself to what she is good at.
However, when as a result of her inability to conceive, Lila is encouraged to spend some time away at a beachside town and she requests Elena to join her, Elena convinces her to pack up and go to Ischia, the beautiful island off the coast of Naples, where she had spent a vacation the previous year (an episode detailed in the first book). Of course, the decision on her part is helped quite a bit by her knowledge that Nino is going to be in the area too and she seems an opportunity for her undeclared love to flourish. But fate may just have hugely different plans in mind for the girls. The vacation turns out to be one which turns their lives upside down and Elena nursing a devastated heart. As for Lila, she returns with vigour to playing the efficient young businesswoman in the shoe store in the centre of town. Or so it seems for a while.
Elena, nursing her broken heart, doubles down on her studies and finally gets a shot at a scholarship to university and a longed-for opportunity to finally leave the neighbourhood. However, like an ache that never truly goes away and comes back to haunt us every now and then, she knows that her link to the place and to Lila will never be truly begotten. But has Lila gone too far this time for even Elena to help her?
The mood and the characters are mostly familiar from the setup the first book gave us. The neighbourhood is the same, as is the poverty and violence inherent in its characters. The subtle acceptance of social codes is also unchanged, with the men expected to be the decision makers and dispensers of justice (often violently) within the family. A fact made clear to Lila on the first day of her marriage by the almost reflexive actions of Stefano, almost as if it was not his will but the will of generations of casual violence before him that decided his behaviour. What has changed though is the mental makeup of the girls and the quandaries they find themselves in. As they grow up, so do their problems. Matters of the heart and romantic entanglements assume much larger import here as do betrayals both known and unknown. A large stretch of the book, which dictates ensuing portions of it, is set on Ischia as the girls get involved with Nino and his friend Bruno. For the uninitiated, there is a possibility of fatigue here. The everyday interactions among the group are intricately observed and elucidated, yet in retrospect this turns out to be important in understanding why each person behaves as they do later.
Another challenge for the author (and reader) here is the portrayal of the girls themselves. In the first book, they were younger and growing up in a violent, patriarchal world which made is easier to identify with them as protagonists and root for them. They were just the brilliant friends at the heart of the story. Here, they still are at the heart of the tale, but things are different otherwise. With adulthood comes its own set of problems, and at times here they seem almost unlikeable. In the case of Lila, her apparent impulsiveness and disdain for the feelings of those around her, perhaps even Elena’s, and in the case of Elena, her perpetual sense of an inferiority complex and an inability to just speak up even when it seems foolish to not do so. Nino himself comes across at times as almost a cipher for them to decipher information about themselves hitherto unknown. His empty idealism does grate sometimes, though it is another realistic portrayal of disaffected youth. But that is growing up in a way. At a tender enough age to make mistakes and learn from them and old enough to start understanding the vagaries and changing fortunes of life. And the author captures the emotions of wonder, self-pity and occasional self-disgust impressively well. Even more so, she gets across the message that in the darkest of times, it is sometimes the oldest of friends who will be with you, as is the case here where alternatively Antonio, Enzo among others go out of their way to ensure Lila is safe and well when it appears for all practical purposes that she isn’t.
In a few ways this volume may disappoint fans of the first book who were expecting a continuation of the easy empathy they found in the lead players. Yet, in a lot of other ways, this is a much more rich and complex exploration of growing pains and is genuinely moving in its depiction of love and loss and friendship regained. The climax portions in particular are incredibly moving as Elena, in the moment of her biggest triumph attempts to track down Lila to share her joy but realises when she does that the shadow of Lila and her fortunes will always hover over her. And yes, this one too does end on a bit of a dramatic cliff-hanger of sorts.