‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante – Not Women’s Lit

‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante   (2014) – 418 pages    Translated by Ann Goldstein

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Don’t let the cover mislead you.  The picture of a woman holding her small daughter looking out to the ocean gives the false impression that this is some Woman’s Lit novel.  I would hate to see males being scared off of some of the best fiction written this new century just because of this cover.

 “Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante’s work prepares you for the ferocity of it.”

Amy Rowland, NYT

‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ is written with an intense angry passion.  This is Italy during the 1970s.

Our two friends, Lenu and Lila, are now in their mid-twenties.  Lila has left her well-to-do wife-beating husband and lives with a man whom she doesn’t sleep with.   To support herself she must work in a sausage factory in Naples.  Meanwhile Lenu has left the city and has published a very popular risqué novel and tours the country promoting her book.

Lenu is now moving in book-publishing intellectual circles, but a meeting with Lila brings her back to her hometown of Naples and her old neighborhood.  Things are not going well with Lila at the sausage factory.  The boss routinely makes sexual advances on some of the female employees.  When Lila rejects his advances, she is given the absolute worst jobs to do in the sausage factory (which you probably can imagine).  The conditions for all the workers in the sausage factory are abysmal, and some try to organize.  When the boss and owners get wind of this, they send in a group of young fascist thugs to brutally beat up the worker leaders.  The workers retaliate and murder a couple of the young fascists.  This is not the kind of stuff you usually find in a woman’s novel.

Elena Ferrante gives us a complete picture by focusing on two women, one who flees the old neighborhood and one who stays or is stuck there.  Lenu, with her college education and book writing, feels like she has escaped her old Naples neighborhood, but there is always something drawing her back into the turmoil.  I think what Ferrante is saying is that there is no real escaping those old primal primitive bonds of our early childhood.

Elena Ferrante never paints a pretty or sentimental picture of the lives of these two young women.  You are always fully aware that life is a struggle especially for women in Italy at that time.

Those who are tempted to read ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ should realize that it is a continuation of the story.  In order to get all the necessary background, you should start with the first novel ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and then the second ‘The Story of a New Name’ before reading this one.  A fourth one is planned for next year.


18 responses to this post.

  1. Some of the best fiction written this century, wow that is praise indeed:)
    And you’re right about that stupid cover, it would put me off if I hadn’t already read Ferrante’s first two.


    • Hi Lisa,
      I can’t think of any writer writing in the 2000s that has meant more to me than Elena Ferrante, and I do believe she (if she actually is a woman) should be up for the Nobel Prize. She captures the life in her Naples neighborhood so vividly and so intensely that you might as well be there. But you’ve read the first two, so you are well aware of her style.


  2. I’ve wondered, as everyone does, about the anonymity. Are we being set up for a ‘great woman writer being exposed as a male’, story? Or is just a publicity twist, you know, to add mystique?


    • I guess Elena Ferrante has never appeared in public, and there are rumors that some male writer is actually writing her novels. I find it hard to believe that a male writer could possibly have written these novels about the two girls from Naples. To me it feels close to memoirs, although they are definitely fiction.


      • Well, who knows? Maybe she’s just wary of the Mafia, hey?
        But I think great writers can write from the PoV of any gender, race or class, and there’s a risk of marginalising people when we say otherwise. Great writing takes listening and empathising, and researching the culture and background of those being written about. James Joyce’s Molly is a classic example of that!


        • Yes, Ian McEwan does a great job of telling the story in ‘The Children Act’ from a woman’s point of view, and, visa versa, Hilary Mantel did a good job writing from a man’s point of view in Wolf Hall. It certainly can be done going either direction, but it would still surprise me if a man wrote Elena Ferrante’s Naples novels.


          • Is that something to do with the intimacy of the way she writes?


            • Maybe the word is intimacy. The scenes are just so vivid that I can’t imagine it is somebody just making this stuff up. Also she’s very angry about the way women were treated in Naples, and I’m not sure a man would have captured that.


  3. Tony, I am really looking forward to reading this one. I loved My Brilliant Friend and recently dowloaded the second one on my Nook, so I’m a little behind, but eventually… I also admired The Days of Abandonment. Yes, she is Nobel-worthy.


    • Hi Kat,
      Happy to hear you are on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon. I’ve read all her work except Troubling Love, and I will get to that one eventually. By this point, I’m probably boring people with my continuous promotion of Ferrante.


  4. Posted by Mij Woodward on October 6, 2014 at 7:22 PM

    You guys might enjoy the discussion about who is Elena Ferrante in a New York Times blog: .

    I enjoyed your discussion this morning, and by coincidence, I am currently reading My Brilliant Friend, and so far likin’ it.

    William Trevor did a wonderful job of writing from a woman’s point of view in Love and Summer.


    • Posted by Mij Woodward on October 6, 2014 at 7:29 PM

      Oops, sorry. Apparently it must be against the law for me to copy the web address for that site. But you can just google it–NYTimes blog–Who Is Elena Ferrante–Aug. 22, 2014. Three different perspectives on the subject.

      Also, in a New Yorker piece, James Wood points out that Elena Ferrante, in written interviews, has referred to herself as a mother. (But this does not prove that she is a woman


      • Hi Mij,
        All three of those articles are fascinating. I especially liked the one on hysteria. That does not bode well for Lenu and Lila in the final novel.
        My own opinion is that the memoir quality of the Neapolitan series would make it unlikely that Elena Ferrante is a man. Referring to oneself as a mother would seem to give it away, but as you say that does not prove she is a woman. There are a lot of mother/daughter scenes in her novels. Would a man have the stamina or interest to write them?
        William Trevor can write just about anything well. It does not surprise me at all that he came up with a convincing female narrator.


        • Posted by Mij Woodward on October 13, 2014 at 6:30 PM

          Hi Tony-
          I believe Elena is a woman. You know that phrase–if it walks like a duck, etc. I am not into speculation. I am too much of the scientific empirical-evidence speech & debate kind of thinker to come up with imagining other things than what is in front of us. She says she’s a mother, she writes about women. I don’t know, it just seems obvious. But life is full of surprises. Maybe one day I will have to eat my hat. Oh well, as long as those books keep mesmerizing
          me . . .
          Also, wanted to let you know that Lizzie’s LIterary LIfe blog has an interview with the translator of Elena’s works–Goldstein (am forgetting her first name).


          • Hi Mij,
            Yes I would be very surprised if Elena Ferrante turned out to be a man. If James Wood says someone told him she had told them she was a mother that should settle it. I sure hope you don’t have to eat your hat.
            I saw the interview with Ann Goldstein at Lizzie’s Literary Life. She is a fantastic translator.


  5. Ferrante does seem a real talent currently coming through, which is exciting stuff.

    Agree on the cover. In my readwomen2014 post I talked a bit about that, about how some books are marketed in a way that basically says they’re not for men, and which mis-sells them as light and heartwarming in a way that’s utterly misleading. It’s very frustrating.

    The book sounds great, but I already have unread Ferrante…


    • Hi Max,
      There is a lot of speculation on the Internet that Elena Ferrante might be a man, specifically Domenico Starnone. I probably lean away from that theory, because the novels so vividly reflect the life of a female in Naples in the 1950s. I suppose a guy could do it, but it would be a supreme act of empathy.

      Not sure what you mean when you say ‘I already have unread Ferrante.’ How do you unread somebody?


      • By unread Ferrante I mean Ferrante I have but haven’t yet read. I haven’t actively unread her, that really would suggest I hadn’t liked a book even if I could somehow do that.

        If she’s a man, she’s a talented man. It’s the talent that really matters in the end. Until that gets proven though I’ll continue to assume she’s what she says she is.


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