I love the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series My Brilliant Friend (you can read my review of it here), so I was very excited to read the second novel in the series – The Story Of A New Name.
Though I loved My Brilliant Friend, I was hoping to see Elena move out of her friend Lila’s suffocating sphere of emotional and psychological influence in Book 2, and I was not disappointed. Though Elena and Lila will always be connected, I thought that Elena really came into her own and established an identity separate from Lila in this second novel, which made me really interested to see how much further they develop separately in the third and fourth books as well.
The end of the book provided a pretty good cliffhanger in which one of the two protagonists is at the start of a great success and the other one has sunk into abject conditions. It really made me want to pick up Book 3 asap, even though I’m not reviewing it until early February. Meanwhile, read my review of The Story Of A New Name below.
This is the second book, following last year’s My Brilliant Friend, featuring the two friends Lila and Elena. The two protagonists are now in their twenties. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila. Meanwhile, Elena continues her journey of self-discovery. The two young women share a complex and evolving bond that brings them close at times, and drives them apart at others. Each vacillates between hurtful disregard and profound love for the other. With this complicated and meticulously portrayed friendship at the center of their emotional lives, the two girls mature into women, paying the cruel price that this passage exacts.
What I Liked
Seeing Elena come into her own. In the first half of the novel, Elena is still living in her childhood neighborhood with Lila, though she does see less of Lila due to Lila’s marriage. At first, Elena continues to seem to be mentally and emotionally subjected to Lila’s influence even when Lila is acting in a way with which Elena does not agree or that hurts Elena’s feelings. By the end of the novel, however, Elena has spent several years away from their childhood neighborhood, forming a new though faltering adult identity for herself as a person distinct from her parents, siblings, childhood friends and former acquaintances. Elena still has moments in which she does not believe in the solidity of her new hard-won success and independence. However, I could tell by the end of this installment in the series that in the next books she would be able to depart from the impoverished social reality she grew up and experience more opportunity in her personal and professional life.
The fluid and complex portrayal of romantic relationships. For the first time in this novel we see the protagonists, Elena and Lila, grappling with the often unsavory realities of actual grown up romantic relationships, whether in first person or through the entanglements experienced by their friends. Across engagements, marriages, affairs, casual sexual encounters and every nuance of romantic involvement in between, Ferrante explores complex themes like the ephemeral nature of love, the blight of domestic violence, contradictory jealousies, traditional and atypical gender relations and the convoluted ties that exist between love, money and happiness. There are so many different kinds of involvements between the characters as they turn from teenagers to adults, and I really appreciated that Ferrante did not produce idealized and unrealistic romances that would have felt inaccurate due to the difficult reality in which her characters grew up.
The importance given to language in the form of dialect versus ‘proper’ Italian. Italy has a plethora of dialects and accents through which you can identify someone as coming from a particular region or even city. In this second novel in the series, we see both Lila and Elena struggling to speak ‘proper’ Italian in an effort to elevate themselves above their origins and the other people of their neighborhood. In particular, Elena experiences living in another city in Italy, among mostly middle class people who naturally speak the ‘proper’ Italian she has to consciously fake. She even struggles to hide her Neapolitan accent so as not to be ridiculed for it. Ferrante doesn’t only identify the use or avoidance of dialect with social class and education, but also with morality, in a way that I found riveting. Some of the most violent and raw scenes in the novel occur with the characters yelling at each other in dialect, as if there was violence intrinsic in the local language itself. The dialect becomes part of the desperation and lack of opportunity experienced by the characters – something they can’t hide that brands them as excluded from the changed and advancements of an Italy that is modernising around them and without them.
What I Didn’t Like
The length. I love Ferrante’s style of writing and I’ve grown attached to her characters, so I thoroughly enjoyed the second book in this series and am looking forward to the next two. However, I think that the portions of Elena and Lila’s life that Ferrante covers in this installment could have been addressed with equal depth and complexity even if the book had been say 100 pages or so shorter. Certain segments dragged or seemed relatively unnecessary both to further character development or to move the plot forward.
In the series’ second book, Ferrante poignantly explores Elena and Lila’s late teens and early twenties, as their destinies diverge and they struggle to create a meaningful adult life for themselves out of their bleak origins.