Elena begins her third year of middle school with a new perspective on her studies, and now she is earning the top grades in her class. Lila, meanwhile, has her own ambitions: she dreams of her family moving from repairing shoes to designing and manufacturing new ones. Lila persuades her brother Rino to take her side, and the two children try to persuade their father that the new spirit of expansion and economic opportunity in the neighborhood makes it the right time to try this project. Lila's ambitions are animated not just by hopes for a better life for her family, but an awareness that lacking money means lacking status, and lacking status could mean danger. Ada Cappuccio, the daughter of the mad widow, has recently been assaulted by the two Solara brothers, and Lila connects their action to an awareness that Ada comes from a poor family, and has no male protectors.
Elena completes middle school with very high grades, but none of her classmates seem impressed with her. Her parents are proud, and suggest plans for her to work in a stationery story or get a public service job. Elena finds both these prospects depressing. She mentions these plans in passing to Maestra Oliviera, who is determined that Elena will continue her studies. The teacher meets with Elena's parents and makes them promise that Elena will continue on to high school. Maestra Oliviera also shares with Elena's parents her observation that she has noticed a budding relationship between Elena and Pasquale Peluso, of which she disapproves. Pasquale works as a construction worker, and his family is tainted by his father having been jailed for the murder of Don Achille. Elena's parents forbid her from pursuing a relationship with Pasquale.
Elena's romantic and intellectual aspirations, however, are stirred by an unexpected event in the neighborhood. After years of separation, Donato Sarratore sends Melina Cappuccio a copy of the book of poems he has published. The book is dedicated to her, and confirms his love for her. While Elena is at first struck by the romantic gesture, she is more deeply intrigued by the fact that someone she knows has been able to write and publish a book.
Lila is less interested in the book, and more focused on her own goals: she and Rino have begun designing and making a pair of shoes, but they must keep this work a secret from their father. Lila is also becoming attractive to the boys of the neighborhood, making Elena anxious and ambivalent. Lila's loyalty to her friend is apparent when, one day, the Solara brothers threaten Elena and Lila from their car, and break Elena's silver bracelet. Lila threatens them with the knife she always keeps on her, and the two brothers leave them alone.
Despite this ferocious protectiveness, the relationship between the two girls becomes strained over the summer. Lila's budding beauty and charisma is apparent to Elena; Pasquale Peluso is clearly infatuated with Lila, even though Elena had briefly believed he was interested in her. More damning still, Elena discovers that Lila has already begun to study the subjects Elena will be learning in high school, such as Greek. The sense of rivalry is not the only source of tension: when Lila and Elena go on outings with their friends, Lila always manages to attract attention from men, and seems unable to modestly deflect it the way the other neighborhood girls have been taught.
Competition for Lila's attention leads to a number of violent confrontations. Most notably, at a party, she winds up being the object of attention of no less than four neighborhood young men: Enzo, Stefano, Marcello (backed by his brother Michele) and Pasquale. The confrontation over who will dance with her nearly turns violent; more importantly, it reveals that beneath the sexual rivalry, conflict between political factions is also driving the animosity between the young men.
Elena and Lila's relationship has always been marked by both envy and fierce love, and this combination becomes more and more apparent as they get older. What seemed like a balance of power between the two begins to shift, marking out the distinct trajectories of their futures. Lila can no longer pretend that she is studying in a way comparable to Elena's education, but the fact that she sneakily studies subjects Elena will be covering in high school makes it clear that Lila is not prepared to be left behind, or intellectually outdone. At the same time, Elena's rage over the revelation that Lila has secretly been studying Greek shows how important it is to her to have something that is uniquely her own, and how much she fears that Lila will always be better than her at everything.
This fear is partially rooted in Lila's emerging sex appeal. Elena has always enjoyed the position of being the more attractive one in the friendship, but she quickly finds herself passed over as Lila begins to attract more and more attention. In some ways, this physical transition represents what Elena has always feared coming to fruition. She has always felt that Lila was more appealing and superior to her, and now other people seem to be recognizing it as well. Elena's intellectual accomplishments are also no comfort to her if it means that she will not be deemed attractive as well.
On a broader scale, as they grow older Lila and Elena also grapple with visions of how they would like to fit into a wider world. The world around them is visibly changing, marked by industry and economic expansion. This ignites hope that both girls can pursue ambitions their mothers never would have dreamed of. Their respective plans reveal different aspects of their personalities. Lila is pragmatic, shrewd, and down to earth: she focuses on a plan that is feasible, reflects actual needs of the marketplace and will result in material prosperity for herself and her family. Elena, on the other hand, wants to know the pride of having written something, to be granted widespread recognition, and to be thought of as an intellectual. She is more concerned with psychic than practical rewards when she dreams of someday being an author, although she imagines wealth as well.