My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Story of a New Name is the second in Elena Ferrante's highly-praised Neapolitan Quartet. In it, we again meet the two friends. Lila and Elena, both born in August 1944 and now in their late teens and early twenties.
By the end of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, teenaged Lila was already married to the wealthy grocer Stefano. Their marriage had continued the neighborhood pattern of rape and beatings. The "brilliant" Lila, who, like Elena, had longed for a different kind of life away from the impoverished neighborhood where they grew up, had escaped the poverty of her childhood in her marriage to Stefano, but she couldn't escape the culture of male domination and physical abuse. That was simply the accepted way of the world.
It was inevitable that the spirited Lila would eventually rebel and seek more from life. The only surprising thing about that was where and from whom she sought that "more."
Elena, meanwhile, with the help and encouragement of her teachers and her own hard work, as well as a little bit of luck, continued her progress through the educational system. She escaped the trap of an early marriage and managed to continue to college, which opened up a whole new world to her.
The story of Elena's first trip away from her neighborhood to go to the college at Pisa brought back some vivid memories for me. I could relate very well to the apprehension and anxiety of a girl who had lived all her life in an insular neighborhood as she struggled to find her way and her place in this new world she had entered. Been there. Done that. Got the tee shirt.
This really is, in so many ways, a heartbreaking story. The barriers that life throws up for these two young women must seem almost unreal to younger women readers living in Western societies today, but their older mothers, aunts, grandmothers can testify that the barriers really did exist and, in all too many instances, still do, even if in modified form.
Elena continues to be the narrator of this story, but her narration is informed by some notebooks of Lila's. Lila had given them to her and pressed her to keep them - but not read them - so that Stefano would not find them. They were notebooks containing her writing about her feelings and experiences from the time of childhood right up through her marriage. Of course, Elena could not resist the temptation of reading them, and so she is able to tell us what Lila was feeling concerning many of the events of both their lives.
The two young women had always been competitive, especially about school, but, as they reach adulthood, they also become competitive about men. They are attracted to the same young man, although Elena denies her attraction. This attraction will have important consequences for their friendship and for their lives.
Throughout these years, the friendship undergoes repeated trials. The lives of the two have diverged in very significant ways and, at times, they are emotionally distant as well as physically distant from each other. But always something brings them back together.
I loved this book. I thought it was even better than My Brilliant Friend. From the very first page of The Story of a New Name I was mesmerized. I would have liked to read the entire book in one sitting, but, unfortunately, life intervened. I had work to do, places to go, appointments to keep, but I always returned to it as soon as I could, because I just couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next.
My only real problem with the book was one of the same ones I had with the first entry, namely trying to keep the cast of thousands straight! All those confusing names and all those families and their interrelationships. Had the author not again included that index of characters at the beginning as a handy reference, I might have been irretrievably lost.
As it is, I now feel that I know and understand Lila and Elena. The drama of their lives seems so real, so well-written, and so engrossing that one can't help feeling that it must be based upon real life. The author herself is something of a mystery, but she grew up in Naples and it seems likely that she experienced or observed events similar to the ones that she describes in her books.
Or maybe she just has a really vivid imagination.
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