Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
The Story of a New Name is the second of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. It continues to follow the friendship of Lenù and Lila that started in My Brilliant Friend.
Often I approach a sequel with trepidation in the fear that the author has tried to hold on too tightly to characters without having a clear story for them or enough material to fill another book. Listening to Anne Tyler on the BBC World Book Club, she said that she became so attached to her characters that she worried about them as she sent them off into the ether when she submitted a novel to her publisher. When asked if she would write a sequel to her phenomenally successful novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant she said no because sequels are never as good as the first novel. I don’t feel that way with Elena Ferrante! Her 2nd novel is just as gripping and fascinating as the first and in fact it feels like the perfect continuation. Ferrante seemlessly keeps the narrative voice going as we follow Elena Greco (Lenù) through to the end of high school and on to university.
Ferrante’s gift for recreating real life stems as much from the quiet, unhurried rhythm of her writing as from the people and events she describes.
It’s a tumultuous time for both Lenù and Lila and their friendship. I loved this line about the thrill experienced by Lenù when in conversation with Lila:
the exchanges I had had with Lila years earlier, which ignited my brain, and in the course of which we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges
The girls are now teenagers. Instead of Lila’s father and brother beating her, Lila is being regularly beaten and raped by her husband. The life of women in Napoli at that time was hideous.
I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And, good God, they were 10, at most 20 years older than me.
Lenù continues to be a brilliant student and in her end of high school exams she wins the admiration of a female examiner from Northern Italy who encourages her to sit the university entrance exam for the Normale in Pisa. When she wins a full scholarship she leaves the impoverished neighborhood of Napoli and sets off alone for Pisa.
I knew almost nothing about etiquette, I spoke in a loud voice, I chewed noisily; I became aware of other people’s embarrassment and tried to restrain myself
Elena struggled to fit in not only because she came from a tough neighborhood but also because she was desperately poor and couldn’t afford to buy any clothes, shoes, glasses that suit her face or get her hair cut. Then of course there is the Northern / Southern Italy issue.
I recognized in them… what I had never had and, I now knew would always lack. What was it? I wasn’t able to say precisely: the training, perhaps, to feel that the questions of the world were deeply connected to me; the capacity to feel them as crucial and not purely information to display at an exam, in view of a good grade
Lila had an incredibly difficult life in the meantime and suffered greatly, trapped in the neighborhood in a loveless marriage among cruel people. Lenù at the end of the book finished her degree and went to visit Lila who by then was again living in poverty but had left the neighborhood of their youth. This passage sums up the point that Ferrante wants to make about female friendship:
I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that – in good faith and, certainly, with affection – I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, … she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other
It makes me sad. Are all female friendships this competitive and callous?