The third of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels gives us a picture of Elena the chief protagonist as a mature – or almost mature – adult, who has completed her studies and graduated from the college in Pisa where she was awarded a scholarship that enabled her to study. She has a relationship with Pietro Airota, a brilliant young academic and the son of a distinguished scholar in Milan, and becomes engaged to him. Upon completing her studies Elena feels impelled to sit down and write, and the novel she produces in a short space of time is passed on to a publisher by her future mother-in-law, Adele, is published and achieves considerable success.

Defying her family’s traditions and wishes, the couple have a small wedding with only a civil ceremony, but Elena is surprised to find that Pietro’s parents have organized a grand reception in their home in Milan. However, the encounter between Pietro and Elena’s family in Naples goes well, and despite Elena’s misgivings they all seem to take a liking to one another.

Throughout the book, Elena is haunted by memories of her erstwhile relationship with Lina, a.k.a. Lila, her friend, and on impulse she goes to track her down in the modest apartment where she is living with her childhood admirer, Enzo, and her son from her failed marriage to Stefano Caracci. Lila, once the darling of the neighbourhood where the two girls grew up, is now employed in a sausage factory, where she is obliged to do menial work that is detrimental to her health and is exposed to sexual harassment by other workers and her boss.

Meanwhile Elena settles down to the comfortable life of a bourgeois housewife and mother married to an up-and-coming albeit boring academic. She goes on book tours and is surprised to find Nino, the young man whom she once idolized, speaking in her favour her at one of those meetings. Nino is now a respected academic, but is also periphelly involved in the political opposition that was ravaging Italy at the time. Elena finds herself drawn into the political and feminist movement, although remains aloof from activism. She does, however, write newspaper articles on the subject. She finds out that Lila is also drawn into quasi-revolutionary activity and gets into trouble with the authorities for writing a leaflet about conditions in the sausage factory.

As the years pass Elena is concerned with looking after her two little girls but feels frustrated at not being able to settle down to writing. She begins to interest herself in feminist matters, and eventually produces a booklet on the subject. Lila and Enzo have become computer programmers, and move back to the neighbourhood in Naples where they grew up, but are now prosperous. Altogether, as in the previous books in the series, there is too much agonizing, anguish and angst for my taste.

Elena grows increasingly dissatisfied with her life, and is overjoyed when Pietro brings Nino home for dinner one evening. One thing leads to another, of course, and Elena and Nino end up sleeping together, discovering that they have always really loved one another. Ultimately, Elena leaves her husband for Nino, and goes with him to attend a conference in Nanterre, France.

And that is where volume no. 3 ends. Let’s hope that the fourth and final volume ties all the ends together neatly and brings everything to a happy conclusion (though I doubt it).