The Story of a New Name is the second of four books of the Neapolitan Novels written by Italian author Elena Ferrante.
The first novel, My Brilliant Friend (you can read my first review here), followed the lives of the main characters, Elena and Lila, through their childhood until their adolescence. The Story of a New Name starts exactly where the first one had finished: it’s set through the ’60s and follows the main characters’ lives until their early twenties.
Ferrante draws very carefully and deeply the lives of all her characters, which are full of poverty, violence, and domestic abuse. But she is also telling us a story of two powerful girls who, in different ways but tied to each other, try to escape from their original condition and elevate to a better life.
For the first time since the beginning of the series, we have a glimpse of the society outside of the rione, the outskirts of Naples where this story is set, and where all the main characters live.
Since the beginning, we know that both Lila and Elena aim to get out of that kind of life, for they already know how it is going to end: like their mothers’, and their grandmothers’ before them.
Elena is the first one who starts to really escape. She is a brilliant student who was lucky enough to get her parents’ support, even if they don’t really understand why and manages to get a degree at the Normale University of Pisa, one of the best universities in Italy even in the present days. No one in her family, as far as Elena remembers, has ever managed to get out of the rione. No one has ever tried.
On the other side, Lila is stuck in a toxic relationship with a violent husband and feels trapped. She keeps living her life as if it’s not her own, not feeling anything, until something happens to her that makes her want to leave everything, no matter if she ends up in poverty again, as long as she’s free.
Even if the two girls have taken very different paths in life they’re still very dependent on each other, especially Elena, who repeatedly keeps attributing her triumphs to Lila’s influence. When, in a crucial part of the story, Lila will betrayal Elena’s trust, this will not be seen as true betrayal, but rather as something inevitable that was almost expected.
What is interesting about Lila’s character is that everyone seems to be fascinated by her, she has a kind of charm that scares at first, but then becomes attractive and makes people want to be liked.
This is what happens to Elena too. She keeps comparing herself to Lila, and always finds herself in a lower position, no matter what happens to them. Even her most important achievement, the publishing of her first novel, is attributed to the influence of a story that Lila wrote when they were children.
Elena is an ambiguous character that we don’t fully understand. Through her voice, it looks like she doesn’t have power over the things that happen to her. She goes to high school because her teachers told her to, and to University because someone that she only met once gave her advice on how to get accepted.
Elena is a character that lives in-between two different worlds. One is the world of the rione where she was born and raised, the other one is a world of intellectuals and professors, people that she likes talking with, but it’s a world that she never manages to integrate with because she doesn’t have the right cultural background.
We can now see these two very distinct worlds interact with each other for the first time, in a moment that was very prosperous in Italian history. During the ’60s Italy experiences economic and cultural growth, and this makes it possible for people to aim at better lives.
Ferrante’s writing in this novel is again compelling and honest. All the characters’ lives are described in all their brutal details, without leaving anything to the imagination.
Once again I enjoyed the story, which allowed me to identify with some of the experiences that the characters do, and I think this is one of the best qualities of Ferrante’s writing.
If you have read this book let me know what you think in the comments!