Picking up almost immediately from where the first novel of Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy concluded, The Story of a New Name traces the lives of Elena and her friend Lila from ages 16 to 23. Superficially they are on utterly disparate trajectories. Lila, married at 16, undergoes humiliation after humiliation, beatings and abuse from her husband, scurrilous gossip and innuendo from relatives and neighbours, and financial ruin. A brief summer of adulterous love spirals out of control and leaves Lila with an infant son, no husband, no lover, and, ultimately a need to re-establish her name as Cerullo, scrubbing away the years she has had to endure as Signora Carracci. By contrast, Elena goes from one academic triumph to the next, obtaining both her high school diploma, and, after gaining a scholarship to the university in Pisa, eventually her university diploma as well. To top it off she writes a much-praised short novel that is published not long after she finishes at the university. But we would be wrong to think that Elena and Lila’s lives are any less entangled than they were in their first youth. The ‘Elena Greco’ on the cover of her novel is as much a constructed name and identity for Elena as the, now, ‘Signora Cerullo’ is for Lila.
I couldn’t help thinking of the relationship between Elena and Lila as comparable to an elaborate dance. Ferrante has structured their lives in such an intricate formal pattern (even their sexual relations are matched), yet the wonder is that the novel never once becomes forced or contrived. Each step in the dance seems both compelled and entirely free. It is so well done that it can take your breath away.
Ferrante’s writing matches her two protagonists. At times it becomes almost formal and argumentative, as when the increasingly educated Elena tries to think through her emotional confusion. At other times it soars with near poetic and existential angst. And yet again it can be as basic as the most basic functions of life in the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples. Riveting. The only disappointment is that I will now have to wait impatiently for the final volume to appear. Highly recommended.
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, book 1 in the Neapolitan Novels series