Ferrante, Elena. The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Novels, Book Two; see also books 1, 3, 4). English translation by Ann Goldstein Europa Editions, 2013. Original title Storia del nuovo cognomen Edizioni E/ O 2012. Kindle edition. F; 3/16.
As we continue from My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in the series, we are immediately introduced to Lila Cerullo’s journals, which have been entrusted to our narrator Elena Greco, and which she has promised not to read. But she can’t resist, and… they are magnificent. She can’t stand it, and so she throws them in the river.
(The next few paragraphs probably qualify as a plot alert…)
Elena is infatuated with older, brilliant, darkly handsome Nino, and is crushed one day after school, watching him waiting outside, only to see him taking the hand of and walking away with a much prettier young girl. But later he pays romantic attention to Elena and she is thrilled to imagine their relationship turning into a real commitment. Lila’s and her husband Stefano’s roughly male-superior traditional marriage deteriorates, and we deeply feel Elena’s shock and pain at a resort beach as Lila swims out of sight with Nino and they return holding hands, ignoring everyone else. Elena understands:
And if I was pretty, if Nino seriously found me attractive— and I knew it was so: in the end he had kissed me, he had held my hand— it was time I looked at the facts for what they were: Lila had taken him from me; Lila had separated him from me to win him for herself. Maybe she hadn’t done it on purpose, but still she had done it.
At the same resort, Nino’s father, a superficially charming older man who has published poetry and who made sexual advances to young teenage Elena, seduces her on the beach and she has sex, for the first time, with him.
Lila’s breakup with Stefano lands her in a hideous food-factory job where she is subject to the unwanted attention of Nino’s rich friend who owns the plant. Her misery is the black mirror of the success and joy of her former marriage and wealth. Plot lines tangle as Elena is invited to the wealthy and educated family of the pretty girl she saw Nino with. Lila attends the party and deflates the credibility of rich intellectuals and of Elena’s pretense to their world. Meanwhile Nino and Lila carry on an affair.
Lila has abandoned school but Elena succeeds at it. She goes to university in Pisa, has a serious romantic relationship with another student, writes fiction which includes the graphic story of her losing her virginity, and has academic and literary success. She eventually meets and is engaged to be married to Pietro Airota, the brilliant academic son of Italian intellectual elite parents, who assist Elena in her publishing career.
(End soft plot alert)
This novel, which could stand on its own but is much more compelling in the light of all the others, seems to me to confirm the author’s strategy of capturing us into her ideas through the power of emotional reversals. Politics and some of the history of civil violence in Italy in the 1980s enters the plot as minor characters become deeply involved, which sets the scene for significant events in later books and adds ideology and the inevitability of civil conflict to the gathering emotional storm.
The awful ambivalence of Elena’s relationship with her friend Lila deepens here, Lila steals Elena’s heartthrob effortlessly, establishing her feminine superiority as if it were the most natural thing in the world but seeming not even to be aware of her friend’s pain. There are more descriptions of Lila’s conviction of reality as a dissolving or shattering nightmare, and of Lila’s apparent determination to ignore factual life circumstances to focus on relationships and flee her fundamental horror. All this is set against Elena’s trials and yet relentless gradual accumulation of academic and conventional life successes, as the two of them seem to grow further apart.
But emotional tidal waves persist. I found myself involuntarily getting ready for inevitable catastrophe following each romantic and other gratification Elena experienced. I’m not sure why this predictability didn’t spoil for me the experience of this story or the others in the series. The central friendship that all this emotional volatility plays out on sets Elena up as “everyperson” who in spite of experiencing gut-wrenching ups and downs finds her way through life as we live it: in ordinary events. But Lila is like some kind of morally-imposed magnifier that makes everything bigger and better, or worse. So it’s no surprise that the friendship is strained: how bearable really is life as Lila, brimming with potential but blocked from living in the normal world by seeing life as vacant and false.
Better, we might conclude here halfway through the four novels, to just put our heads down and get on with ordinary events. Skip the sweet joy of success, love, friendship, and creativity and don’t pay what seems to be the price: failure, betrayal, isolation, and destruction.
Like we get to choose?
Certainly the roller-coaster ride continues and I doubt many readers who get this far would turn down the next installment of the series. 9.3/9.3.