Elena and Lila meet when they are six years old and in the same first grade class. They both live in a rough, working-class neighborhood in Naples, Italy, where violence and feuds are common. Elena warily admires Lila's rebelliousness and stubborn fearlessness. Lila is also highly intelligent; at the age of only six, she is able to read and write without ever having been formally taught to do so. Elena is jealous of Lila's intelligence, and the attention she receives from the teacher, Maestra Oliviero, as a result, but also intrigued by her.
Because of the small size of the neighborhood, Lila and Elena are familiar with the family histories and scandals of the lives of their classmates. Melina Cappuccio, for example, has gone mad after the death of her husband. She is helped by Donnato Sarratore, a railway worker who lives in the same building as her, but as a result of this help is involved in a rivalry and bitter feud with Sarratore's wife Lidia.The lives of the children revolve around complex and shifting loyalties and jealousies. Elena is enamored with one of the most intelligent boys, Nino Sarratore, Donnato's son; Alfonso Carracci is also notably intelligent. In general, Lila is not popular with the other children; following a day when she defeats Enzo Scanno in a series of academic tests, a group of boys begin to throw rocks at her. Elena recalls her shock and horror when one of the rocks strikes Lila in the head.
When the girls are around eight years old, Lila throws Elena's doll into Don Achille's cellar. Don Achille is a feared man in the neighborhood, particularly because of an on-going and violent feud with Signor Peluso, a carpenter. Elena responds by throwing Lila's doll in as well, and the two girls decide to enter the cellar in order to retrieve them. However, they cannot locate the dolls in the cellar.
Elena finds this event very traumatic. While she is still grieving for her doll, Nino—who attends school with Elena and Lila—tells her that he loves her and wants to marry her someday. Stunned, Elena rejects him, and then awkwardly avoids him. A short time later, Nino's family moves out of the apartment building they share with Melina Cappuccio, leading to a violent outburst from her. The overture from Nino marks a pattern of Elena and another classmate, Gigliola, receiving regular attention from boys, while Lila is not considered an attractive prospect.
Some months after the dolls are lost, Lila persuades Elena to go to Don Achille's apartment and ask for the dolls back, convinced that he has taken them. Elena finds this prospect terrifying, but follows Lila, exemplifying the reluctant trust between the two. Lila fearlessly accuses Don Achille of having stolen the dolls, and he gives the two girls money to buy new ones.
Due to the retrospective nature of the story, events are related in fragmented and often non-linear fashion, reflecting Elena's memories of her and Lila's childhood. The earliest period of their friendship highlights the influence of rivalry and ambivalence on their relationship. Lila is not a likable child, and she seems to dominate Elena. Elena recalls the coping strategies she uses to retain a sense of agency; while Lila is innately and precociously intelligent, Elena is more docile and obedient. Elena can also capitalize on her good looks, and her ability to control her emotions and conceal what she is really feeling. Lila, with her more volatile temperament, is less likely to do so. This portrayal of friendship between two very young girls is striking in its depiction of aggression, manipulation, and struggles for dominance, which forms a contrast with how children, especially girls, are typically portrayed. These aspects may be heightened due to subsequent events coloring the way Elena remembers her childhood.
If Elena and Lila's friendship is presented in unidealized terms, the discussion of the environment in which they grow up is even harsher and more honest. Historically, Naples experienced deep poverty during the period post World War II, and this led to social problems as well. It is clear that Elena and Lila have knowledge of the adult world of lies, scandal and violence, and are not sheltered or kept innocent. It is also clear that violence and power feuds are an integral part of life for the children as well; constantly shifting alliances, divisions, and enmities shape the way the various schoolchildren interact with one another.
Additionally, even as young children, there are concerns with romantic pairings. Especially for the girls, for whom choosing a romantic partner will later be a major concern and priority, one's attractiveness is an important form of social currency beginning at a young age. In this area, Elena actually outshines Lila, which is a rare reversal of their usual power dynamic.