Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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Book review: “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant

I first knew Sarah Dunant as a broadcaster on late-night arts shows in the late 1990s. It’s funny how you remember some people – she always had very distinctive glasses. I was conscious that she seemed to disappear off the scene and for a while there I got her mixed up with Sarah Waters…until I saw Sarah W speak at the Manchester Literature Festival a few years ago and realised they were not the same! But Sarah D had in fact reinvented herself as an author, as I was to discover a year or so ago when I saw her speak at a writer’s conference. (I should add that 2000-2012 were lean reading years for me – I was knee-deep in children and totally out of the literary loop).

I’ve read a few historical novels, notably Deborah Moggach and Tracy Chevalier, and loved them, though it’s not a genre I often choose. I decided on this as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2018, and when I saw The Birth of Venus in my local Oxfam bookshop it seemed an obvious choice. It’s wonderful, I loved it, and it seems to have gone down pretty well with the other participants on the Reading Challenge.

The Birth of Venus imgThe novel is set in Renaissance Florence; the sense of time and place is profound. You can almost smell the streets wafting from the pages! Dunant is a meticulous researcher and the novel feels very authentic. The central character is Alessandra, the fifteen year-old daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. Much to the frustration of her family Alessandra is a precociously intelligent young woman, a talented artist, a strong personality and has a deep desire to be out in the world. These are all traits which are highly inconvenient for the family and not compatible with the kind of life she will be expected to lead.

As a mark of their wealth, Alessandro’s parents commission a Flemish artist to paint the chapel in their home, incorporating the family’s portraits. Though she has very limited opportunity to communicate with him, his presence produces a stirring effect in Alessandra. She is attracted both by his artistic ability and his mysterious nocturnal wanderings into the city.

Alessandra is destined to be married off as soon as she starts menstruating and the husband selected for her is an older man, a long-standing family acquaintance. At first it seems the marriage will set Alessandra on the same path that her mother and sister before her have followed – moving from one zone of subjugation to another and endless child-bearing. In fact, Alessandra’s husband, Cristoforo, is the lover of her brother Tomaso and the marriage is merely one of convenience to provide him with the cover of a wife and child. At first, Alessandra is distraught and feels betrayed, but it soon becomes apparent that this frees her more than she could ever have imagined, to pursue some of her own dreams, to be more sexually liberated, and to be mistress of her own time and activity. In the background to the domestic tumult is the political upheaval in the city; first, the invasion of the French, then the rule of Savonarola, a fierce reactionary monk who preaches a severe brand of Christianity. The old certainties of corruption, sleaze and vice in the Church and politics are being brutally flushed out in favour of a strict religious fervour, and a new atmosphere of fear, surveillance, severe torture and punishment for misdemeanours has replaced it.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and events unfold dramatically. The plot is so well thought-through and maintains momentum right to the end. The characters are well-rounded and believable, not just Alessandra, but her mother and husband, her brother and sister, the painter and her loyal maid, African slave Erila.

The book is ambitious in scope, in its portrayal of the period and the way it weaves the political upheavals and realities of the era into what is essentially one young woman’s story of coming of age, of emotional and sexual maturing and of finding fulfilment in the most constrained of circumstances.

Highly recommended, great for any holidays you might have coming up and I’ll certainly be looking out for more Sarah Dunant for future reads.

Do you enjoy historical fiction? What are your recommendations?

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Audiobooks can be a great way to access books if you’re time-poor

I know so many people who love reading, but find it hard to find the time to do so – when you have a family, work and find yourself under pressure to provide taxi services, help with homework, cook interesting and nutritious meals, check emails….the list goes on. Reading often drops off the list. And how many of you do your reading at bedtime and find you fall asleep before you’ve even finished a chapter?

It’s a common problem. I am a great believer in two things, however. First, if you want your kids to read they have to see you doing it too – so you’re actually being a good parent by finding time to read. Second, reading can be a wonderful way of escaping all the chores and pressures of life, so you will benefit from even 10-15 minutes here and there.

glass-2557577_1920I’m a big fan of audiobooks as a way of passing otherwise dead time in a more constructive way  – for me it’s car journeys, or whilst exercising. It might also be while you’re waiting for swimming lessons to finish or at the supermarket. You have to choose your titles carefully though, because it’s not just about what you listen to, but the narrator is really key to the enjoyment. For example, audiobooks I have enjoyed have been Holding, narrated brilliantly by the author Graham Norton, Frankenstein, narrated by Derek Jacobi and 1984, narrated by Andrew Wincott (Adam from The Archers). Their reading styles enhanced my enjoyment. A title I enjoyed less because of the narration was The Girl on the Train, where I felt the male voices were not done well.

the story of a new nameI have recently finished listening to The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Book Two in her Neapolitan Novels series. I have listened to and reviewed here, Book One, My Brilliant Friend, and the narration by American actor Hilary Huber is sublime. The Story of a New Name continues where Book One left off, with Lila marrying the grocery-store owner Stefano Caracci. Lila acquires a new social standing and some material wealth, but it is a loveless affair, and the marriage soon deteriorates into violence and enmity.

Lila’s childhood friend Elena, chooses a different path; she continues her education and though at first she barely scrapes through with adequate grades, she eventually graduates and is accepted at the university in Pisa. While Lila’s life is coming apart (despite her many talents, her beauty and her magnetic appeal), Elena’s eventually triumphant academic trajectory comes as a surprise to many as her abilities and potential were not thought to be as great (especially by herself).

This book has the same wonderful setting, 1960s Naples, the same cast of fascinating characters, mostly sinister and flawed, and develops the themes of friendship, and its many complex facets, jealousy, family feuds, conflict, love, hatred and the position of women in society.

The book is long (over eighteen hours worth of listening, or nearly 500 pages in paperback), but it is epic in scale and epic in achievement. On my audiobook app you can select a faster reading speed; I tried listening at 1.25 speed, but I went back to standard speed, because Hilary Huber’s American drawl is a treat for the ears and brilliantly suited to the story.

I would highly recommend this audiobook – the cast of characters is complicated and sometimes I forgot who was who, especially when shortened or ‘pet’ names are used in the dialogue. I found it helpful to look up a cast of characters online so I could keep track. There are two more books in the series – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. I will certainly stick with the series and get both of these – even though it might take another year to get through listening to them!

Does the narration style affect your enjoyment of an audiobook?

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