Note: This novel is a continuation of My Brilliant Friend, and the summary here contains spoilers for those who have not already read that book.
“We had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood. We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us…Our mothers, after they were slapped by their husbands…despaired, they wept, they confronted their man sullenly…and yet, they continued to respect him.”
When Elena Ferrante created this epic about the women in Naples as they faced major cultural changes from the early 1950s to the present, it was too long and unwieldy for a single novel. Instead, it has been issued in installments as three separate books. My Brilliant Friend, the first installment, released in 2012, focuses on a broad spectrum of Neapolitan life in the 1950s, and this year’s volume, The Story of a New Name (which is called, simply, My Brilliant Friend, Volume II, in Italy), focuses on the same families and main characters as they continue their lives in the 1960s. Readers of My Brilliant Friend, will remember from the Prologue to that novel, that Elena Greco, then sixty-six and living in Turin, received a long-distance telephone call in 2010 from the son of Lila Cerullo, who was once her best friend, asking for help in locating his mother, who disappeared from Naples two weeks before, taking all her possessions. Out of touch with Lila for years, Elena is convinced, based on past experience, that the dramatic and spontaneous Lila does not wish to be found, and she decides to write down everything she can remember of Lila and her life from her birth in 1944 to 2010. The trilogy which results from her efforts recounts the life of Lila, also known as Raffaella or Lina, and illustrates Elena’s own long relationship with her as a child and young woman, their two lives intertwining but moving in dramatically different directions in the course of the action.
Nine families populate this complex trilogy, with over fifty characters listed individually by family in the (necessary and helpful) “Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of Volume I” included at the front of the book, and even readers of the first volume will need the reminders contained here. Elena and Lila, who met as friends and rivals (and sometimes enemies) in the first volume, epitomize the changes occurring in Naples in the aftermath of World War II, with increased schooling being the catalyst for many of these changes. Both girls are very bright, but it is Lila who teaches herself to read at age three and learns several languages on her own. Despite her academic skills, however, Lila, as a young teenager, decides not to continue her schooling, partly for financial reasons, partly because she has discovered a talent for designing shoes while working in her father’s shoe-making shop, and partly because she has met someone who is important and successful locally and who wants to marry her. Elena remains in school, manages to keep passing her requirements, gains some financial and academic support, and eventually continues her education. My Brilliant Friend ends with the elaborate wedding of Lila, at age sixteen, to Stefano Carracci, four years older, the son of a murdered loan shark and black marketeer.
The Story of a New Name begins in the aftermath of Lila’s wedding, which from the outset is unhappy. Lila, a passionate and temperamental person, does not suffer fools gladly, and she constantly alienates those around her, especially now that she has the financial resources to buy what she wants, whenever she wants, and the intelligence to use her position for personal payback on old grudges, when necessary. The fact that her husband is now allied financially with the Solara family, Camorrist criminals who are far more organized and violent than Stefano’s father was, makes some of her own activities risky for her husband. Her only real friend is Elena, and that relationship is complicated by Elena’s own obligations regarding school and her need to pay for her expenses – and, more importantly, by the fact that Lila has no idea what it takes to be a real friend. She wants what she wants – right now.
Now in their late teens and early twenties, all of the characters here, with the possible exception of Elena, are dependent on making good marriages to sons from the shop-keeping families they already know from their Naples neighborhood, but with blackmarketeers and the Camorra using their financial resources to affect these local businesses and increase their own wealth, local shopkeepers are sometimes hard pressed to meet their financial obligations. Most of their wives are willing to work in their family’s shops, but as the economy improves, the women also want more than what they have had. Elena escapes most of this, even leaving the neighborhood for Pisa for additional schooling, returning home on vacations and/or to work during the summer. Her own love interests must compete for time with her academic commitments, and when she is at home in Naples, she wearies of Lila’s imperious demands. On one occasion, Lila persuades Elena to accompany her to Ischia on vacation, paying her way and providing a place to stay, a vacation filled with disasters as Elena discovers just how vengeful and jealous Lila can be.
At over eight hundred pages for the first two volumes, this trilogy is truly epic in length. In its depiction of Naples in the aftermath of war, primarily in My Brilliant Friend, it adds epic themes and ideas. In this second novel, however, the reader is already familiar with the characters and their families as they deal with the general economic picture, and the initial interest in these characters may begin to wane for some readers as the novel focuses on the minutiae of their daily lives, especially their turbulent and complex love lives. With the reader’s attention focused on the small details and not the grand epic themes one would hope for, the many scenes of recriminations and tears expended on the novel’s men, for whom the “rules” of behavior do not apply, may become wearisome, and the novel may begin to feel claustrophobic (as it did for me). Only Elena, whose own life is not pretty, manages to get out of Naples and into a new environment, but she is so conditioned by her own insecurities and her academic challenges that she is unable to relax and come to know herself as a person independent of her culture. She realizes very early that losing the Naples accent is one key to a different life in a bigger Italy, and though she is reluctant to admit it, she also recognizes that “class” and her ability to find new opportunities are connected to obtaining a superior education. She is not yet prepared to deal with that life-changing new awareness, however. Perhaps that will become a focus and main theme in the next book in the series.
ALSO by Elena Ferrante: TROUBLING LOVE, a stand-alone, and MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (#1 in the “trilogy”). The third book in the series, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY was released in September, 2014. A fourth book is now scheduled for Spring, 2015.
About the author: Some have suggested (in many articles in Italy and some in the US, including both the Boston Globe and Wikipedia) that Elena Ferrante is a pen name for well known Italian author Domenico Starnone, though Europa Editions has published some letters that are attributed to Elena Ferrante herself.
Photos, in order: The color block is adapted from one posted on http://mariasmovers.com/
The Naples street scene appears on http://www.kiddytravel.com/
The Piazza dei Martiri, where the most elegant of Stefano’s shops is located, is from http://www.sirenapartenope.it/
Caravan Palace, home of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, where Elena attended secondary school, may be found here: http://www.customstore.it