This weekend I put down the “The Story of a New Name”, the second book of Elena Ferrante’s trilogy (apparently now tetralogy). That’s not a completely accurate statement – rather, the book put me down, allowed me to escape its pages, regurgitated me back to reality after a week of morning and evening commutes which I wished would last just a little longer, just until I reached the next chapter.
The Story of a New Name is a whirlwind of a novel, which may seem unusual, in that nothing particularly revolutionary happens in its pages. Two poor girls grow up in a crime-ridden, violent neighborhood of Naples in the 1905s, using their intelligence, street skills and friendship with each other to fight their way through a rough childhood and adolescence. And yet, the writing is so fierce, the plot lines weave in and out so tightly, the characters are so life-like yet mysterious that you cannot help but return often to this bleak and often unforgiving working class world that Ferrante describes so well.
The two main characters of the novels, Elena and Lila (Lina), forge a friendship that is unlikely and at times unlucky.
-Lina is a capricious figure, endowed with artistic intelligence and psychological insight that is too much for her to handle at her young age, especially when coupled with her fiery temper and seemingly contradictory emotions. Crippled in her hostile environment by skills that in another context would be gifts, she careens through her life seemingly blithely oblivious to her destructive, compelling force, intent on accomplishing goals that only she knows about. This force is what brings her environment -and indeed her friend Elena, the narrator – to oscillate between heedless devotion and uncomprehending animosity towards her. The reader too is pulled into this seesaw of emotions, as frustrated as her environment yet compelled to try to understand her, unable to leave her and return to peace.
Elena, the porter’s daughter, her best friend since childhood, seems to have her stars better aligned, with more support to her studies and ambition to better herself, to educate herself, to pull herself up and out of their neighborhood and its poverty. And yet, one feels as Elena self-deprecatingly puts it herself, that she is but a mere shadow of Lina’s personality, an incomplete reflection of the rollercoaster of her passionate friend.
The world the books describe is ugly, mostly chaotic, often violent. It is a world where nobody is surprised if a woman is beaten by her husband; he is only continuing the corrective work her brother and father have started. A mistress cast-away by an aspiring poet and father of many goes mad and is only fit to wash stairs. Children are not protected from violence or deprivation, teenage girls marry for the status it will convey, and the local mafia, sure of their impermeable status, walks the streets harassing young women. And yet the world of those Neapolitan streets is also vivacious, alive, smelly, ugly, and real. The naturalistic bent of Ferrante’s writing does not come across as preachy or vindictive – the language, at times vulgar, does not aim to shock. It simply seems to be an absorbing, fascinating account of two intertwined female lives. It will exhaust you and annoy you, but you will sail through until the last page and then heave a sigh of relief. And get yourself back to the library to check out volume three.