The second book in the series known as The Neapolitan Novels, takes Elena, the narrator and chief protagonist, and her friend Lila, through their turbulent teenage years. The scene at the conclusion of the previous novel, Lila’s wedding to a local businessman, already contains a hint that the marriage will not be a harmonious union, and this does indeed turn out to be the case.
The tempestuous wedding night and subsequent ‘honeymoon,’ the physical violence inflicted by the frustrated bridegroom on his young wife, and the verbal violence with which she retaliates, all add up to convey a sense of unhappiness and mutual dissatisfaction. The young woman’s failure to become pregnant is another source of disappointment for the bridegroom and his family, and in order to overcome this obstacle it is suggested that she should go on holiday to the nearby island of Ischia, in the company of her mother, sister-in-law, and the narrator herself.
The seaside vacation only leads to further complications, when Nino, the fellow-student with whom Elena is in love, turns up, accompanied by a friend, and he and Lila find themselves attracted to one another, eventually embarking on a torrid affair. Elena feels obliged to conceal her own emotional involvement and despair, and even to help her friend hide her actions from her husband, who comes to stay with them at the weekends. What could have been considered the normal teenage emotional turmoil of the two young women in other circumstances turns into a potentially disastrous and destructive dicing with danger in the emotional and physical rough and tumble of Neapolitan life.
The situation is further complicated by Elena’s sense of disgust at the attentions of an older man, the father of the student she is in love with, but allows him to deflower her one night on the beach. Nonetheless, she is able to concentrate on her studies at school, completes her education successfully and is granted a scholarship to attend university in Pisa. There she meets young people her own age who come from cultured backgrounds very unlike her own, and she learns to behave and talk in a manner that befits her new surroundings.
At university she devotes herself to her studies and returns to Naples only rarely, feeling ever more alienated from her roots in the neighbourhood and her family. She learns from time to time of the vicissitudes of Lila’s life, the child she bears claiming that it is her lover’s and not her husband’s, the break-up of her marriage, her short-lived attempt to move in together with her lover, and eventual desertion of her husband, accomplished with the aid of a childhood friend, Enzo, who loves her but does not impose himself on her.
At the book’s conclusion we find that Elena is engaged to the son of a professor, has gained her degree but still feels unsure of herself. She has written a novel that has just been published, and is giving a talk about it. Among the audience she recognizes Nino, the student she once loved. She has also managed to track down Lila, her old friend, who now works in a sausage factory, is struggling to earn a living but is happy with Enzo. Together Lila and Enzo study computer programming at night.