The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

A month or so ago, I reviewed My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in a series of Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. This vibrant story, set in 1950s Naples, shows us the lives of two young girls, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, from childhood through adolescence, ending when the two girls are sixteen. It’s a sweeping, epic tale with the feel of a modern classic. Superbly translated by Ann Goldstein, the book paints a rich and nuanced portrait of Elena and Lila’s friendship through the years. In this post, I’ll be focusing on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name, in which we follow Elena and Lila from the end of their adolescence to their early twenties.

WARNING: In order to review this second volume, I have to reveal the ending of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend and events in the opening 50 pages of New Name (this book runs to 480 pages).

Cover4-192x300 The Story of a new name

The Story of a New Name opens as Elena recalls the time in 1966 when Lila entrusts to her care a box containing eight notebooks. Lila, afraid that her husband might find her notebooks, can no longer conceal them at home. Despite promising not to open the box, Elena cannot help resist the temptation to read Lila’s notebooks – not a diary as such, but detailed accounts of the events of her life, exuding the ‘force of seduction that Lila had given off since she was a child’. (These pages also provide us, the readers, with a useful summary of some of the key episodes in My Brilliant Friend.) Elena studies Lila’s account of events for weeks, focusing on passages that thrill, hypnotise and humiliate her. In the end, she is frustrated by the experience and decides to take action:

Finally, one evening in November, exasperated, I went out carrying the box. I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now I that I had a life outside of Naples. I stopped on the Solferino bridge to look at the lights filtered through a cold mist. I placed the box on the parapet and pushed it slowly, a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her: books and shoes, sweetness and violence, the marriage and the wedding night, the return to the neighbourhood in the new role of Signora Raffaella Carracci. (pg. 18)

We return to the drama of Lila’s wedding to Stefano Carracci, owner of the neighbourhood grocery stores. It soon becomes clear that Lila’s marriage (at the age of sixteen) is already over before the close of her wedding day. She learns that Stefano has been forced to enter into a business partnership with the influential and brash Solara family in order to protect the future of the Cerullo shoe business (managed by Lila’s father and brother). Lila despises the Solara brothers, Marcello and Michele, and is livid with Stefano for forging a connection between the two families. Lila and her new husband continue to quarrel and return from honeymoon after only four days. When Elena next sees Lila she learns of the traumatic start to her friend’s life as a married woman; Lila is wearing dark sunglasses and a scarf to cover the bruises on her face, the result of beatings from her husband, and she appears resigned to her fate:

We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us. As a result, since Stefano was not the hateful Marcello but the young man to whom she had declared her love, whom she had married, and with whom she had had decided to live forever, she assumed complete responsibility for her choice. And yet it didn’t add up. In my eyes Lila was Lila, not an ordinary girl of the neighbourhood. Our mothers, after they were slapped by their husbands, did not have that expression of calm disdain. They despaired, they wept, they confronted their man sullenly, they criticized him behind his back, and yet, more or less, they continued to respect him (my mother, for example, plainly admired my father’s devious deals). Lila instead displayed an acquiescence without respect. (pg. 53)

At the heart of this narrative is the depth and intensity of Elena’s relationship with the brilliant Lila. In this scene, Elena recaptures some of the joy of her childhood with Lila as the she helps her friend create a dazzling piece of art for display in the Solara’s glamorous new shoe shop in the city:

Before our astonished and, in the cases of some, openly hostile eyes, she cut strips of black paper, with the manual precision she had always possessed, and pinned them here and there to the photograph, asking for my help with slight gestures or quick glances.

I joined in with the devotion that I had felt ever since we were children. Those moments were thrilling, it was a pleasure to be beside her, slipping inside her intentions, to the point of anticipating her. I felt that she was seeing something that wasn’t there, and that she was struggling to make us see it, too. I was suddenly happy, feeling the intensity that invested her, that flowed through her fingers as they grasped the scissors, as they pinned the black paper. (pg. 119)

But Elena’s feelings for her friend are bound up in a tangle of emotions, often contradictory to one another. As in the previous novel, she is constantly reflecting, self-analysing and comparing herself to Lina. Deep down Elena fears that she is not as attractive or as talented as her friend, and she may be consigned to remain in Lila’s shadow:

I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it. I was afraid that she would express herself in dialect, that she would say something vulgar, that it would become obvious that school for her had ended with an elementary-school diploma. I was afraid that, if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotized by her intelligence and Professor Galiani herself would be entranced. (pg. 151)

As with the first book, Ferrante brings the same sense of passion and vitality to The Story of a New Name. She presents a vivid and detailed picture of this working-class neighbourhood of Naples with its shoemakers, grocers and pastry makers. We see the tensions and rivalries between families, ferocious arguments over love, money, power and reputation in the community. We follow individuals as they try to break away from the constraints of their background. Elena tries to achieve this through education, while the Solaras, Carraccis and Cerullos aim to better themselves through investment in their grocery and shoe businesses.

Another key strand in The Story of a New Name is Elena’s search for love. Since childhood, she has been attracted to Nino Sarratore, another brilliant and self-assured student from the neighbourhood. She feels thrilled to be in his company, enthused by their debates and discussions. Nino seems to be attracted to Elena, too, but the path to true love never runs smoothly and other forces run the risk of disrupting their budding relationship.

As with My Brilliant Friend, this second novel ends with a key event, a meeting that has the potential to alter the life of at least one of the two friends, possibly both. Once again, it left me desperate to read the next instalment in this utterly compelling story…and the English translation of book three in the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is due to be published in the UK in September 2014.

Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have also reviewed The Story of a New Name.

I’ve reviewed this book in August to tie in with Women in Translation (#WITMonth), championed by Biblibio.

The Story of a New Name is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: library copy.

27 thoughts on “The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

      1. priyanka

        Wow . That’s so cool . Currently I am reading The Fountainhead . Chapter 13 :D Have you read that book ??

  1. Brian Joseph

    Based upon your commentary these books seem to be so very strong in terms of plot and characters.

    Your description of Lila’s marriage is both intriguing and tragic.

    Because of the key events flowing from one book to another, it sounds as if these books are best viewed as one long work instead of seperate books.

    Great review as always Jacqui. You really seem get into the essence of the books that you describe.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, very much so Brian; the depth of characterisation is exceptional, and the plot is rich in detail. And you’re absolutely right about the story being best viewed as one extended work as opposed to separate books; they feel like instalments of a serialisation complete with endings that leave the reader eager for their next fix (well, this reader anyway).

      Thank you for saying so, Brian; I try my best!

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s great to hear; Ferrante’s portrayal of Naples is very vivid. Do let me know how you get on with this series if you decide to give a go. There is much love for these novels amongst our reading friends.

  2. Guy Savage

    I have this along w/the first book, and I haven’t read either. I’d heard that this second book was disappointing, but you didn’t seem to find it so.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ah, good point, Guy – I’ve realised I didn’t say anything about how New Name compares to My Brilliant Friend. I think the first book is the stronger of the two. The opening third of book two is very compelling, but the middle section on Elena’s search for love is a bit baggy (unlike the first book which felt more consistent throughout). That said, the narrative arc as a whole is very compelling, and final third/quarter of book two moves the story forward into new territory.

      I do wonder how Ferrante will be able to sustain momentum and engagement going forward, though, as I understand there’s a 4th (and final) book in the series due in 2015. The women are in their early twenties by the end of book two, so I guess there’re another forty years to cover…

  3. Bellezza

    I didn’t read your review fully, Jacqui, as you kindly put a warning on the top. I loved Ferrente’s Days of Abandonment (hope I have that title correct!) but when I picked up My Brilliant Friend, I was disappointed. I didn’t finish it, but that could have been more relative to the phase I was in than how she wrote it. I feel I should try again some day.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting, Bellezza, as I’ve just read The Days of Abandonment, and it’s quite a different book to My Brilliant Friend, isn’t it? Abandonment certainly feels tighter than the Neapolitan novels, and they differ in tone, too. Life would be very dull if we all liked the same things, although I do know what you mean about not being in the best phase or mood for a particular book from time to time. Sometimes you have to catch the ‘right’ moment.

      I wouldn’t rush to revisit MBF if you were disappointed before. Have you read Troubling Love or The Lost Daughter? As far as I understand, they’re closer in style to The Days of Abandonment.

      1. Bellezza

        No, I haven’t read the titles you mentioned. Only The Days of Abandonment. But, thanks for reminding me I don’t “have” to carry on with the Brilliant Friend. There are just too many others I want to read for WIT month, not to mention my own Japanese Literature Challenge.

        (Aren’t you glad we read The Mussel Feast (speaking of WIT) this year? That will certainly be one of my favorites for 2014.)

        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Exactly. Little point in persevering if you weren’t enjoying it, and there are so many other books to read.

          Yes, I was very impressed by The Mussel Feast. I don’t think I’ve heard a bad word about it..

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  8. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I enjoyed Book 2 just as much as Book 1, I was intrigued to see how their lives would pan out as they became young adults and following such different paths, though with the same objective perhaps, to rise above the entrapment of the neighbourhood. Lila’s challenge is tough, to have followed the traditional path whilst in possession of such a rebellious spirit, but perhaps also that is what enables her to cope. Elena pursues her education and although Lila has abandoned it long ago, she continues to harbour a sense of inferiority towards her friend.

    I found this book really interesting for its exposure of the reality of the near impossible task of rising above a certain kind of upbringing, the sacrifices that are required, the mask that must be put in place to create another place in the world, one that will inevitably always feel slightly false or ill fitting, as Elena discovers as one can never be rid entirely of one’s origins.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Glad to hear you enjoyed New Name, Claire. I found book two very compelling although My Brilliant Friend remains my favourite of the three published so far. I loved the opening section third of New Name but I just felt the middle section in Ischia could have been a little tighter. Still, it’s a great portrait of the developing dynamics and tensions in Lila and Elena’s relationship and another cliffhanger ending!

      It’s very interesting to read your comments on the challenge of rising about a certain kind of upbringing and Elena’s attempts to blend in with her college peers. Having grown up in a working class family, I can relate to that feeling to a certain extent. There were times in my early years at University when I thought I might be exposed as some kind of imposter. That all of a sudden someone would come along and discover that I wasn’t good enough or didn’t fit the ‘right’ profile to belong to that world. It never happened of course, but I did feel the pressure to be a certain type of person and fall in line with my peers. This was England in the 1980s, so I can imagine it being much more acute for Elena in 1960s Italy.

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  11. Jennifer

    Finished the first book last night and plan to start the second this week. It reminds me of my best friend and I who met in 7th grade. She remembers vividly me walking in with my long blonde hair and she thinking I was a snob and she wasn’t goingvto like me. When actually I was scared to death having relocated and starting a new school and not knowing anyone. We r in Our 50s now and r more like sisters than our real sisters r. Loved my brilliant friend and can do relate to the story. Similar to growing up poor in wv.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting, isn’t it. Even though Lila and Elena’s story is rooted in the Naples of the 1950s/’60s, there is something universal about the dynamic which exists between those two girls. I too recognise certain elements from my own childhood, especially when I think about the way those two girls persist in measuring themselves against one another. It’s a terrific series, so full of depth – I hope you enjoy the remaining volumes just as much!


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