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