It took me several months to get through The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, the second book in her Neapolitan series, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I kept getting interrupted by other things. You see, I borrowed the book from the university library where I work and it had a long due date and I kept getting books arriving from the public library with short due dates, and, well, you know how it goes.
But Story of a New Name is excellent and I liked it very much. It picks up right where My Brilliant Friend left off. The new name belongs to Lila who has gotten married to Stefano, the wealthy owner of the neighborhood grocery. Lila has gone from rags to riches, has a beautiful house, beautiful clothes, she is supposed to be living the dream. Except she finds marriage to be stifling. Her husband makes deals with the local power brokers using Lila as part of the transactions. When she protests, he beats her. She has trouble getting pregnant and when she finally does she miscarries. She is a smart woman in need of intellectual stimulation and pursuits who finds herself cutoff from what she most needs and wants.
The story is just as much about Lena, who narrates. Lena, is poor like Lila was, and just as smart, but instead of marrying a rich husband, she is able to go to school with the help and intervention of friendly teachers. They give her the books she needs to study, the challenge, the praise. They even help her go to college on a scholarship. Lila helps Lena too, buys her books and gives her an extra room in her house in which to study. In exchange, Lena provides Lila with the intellectual stimulation she badly needs.
But Lena has always felt second best to Lila and the more voracious Lila becomes, the more Lena withdraws. Lena sees Lila from the outside and can only criticize her actions. If Lila hadn’t said this or done that then Stefano wouldn’t beat her. If she would behave then things would be better. Lena goes back and forth between wishing she and Lila could go far away together and never wanting to see her again. Even when she does cut herself off from Lila, Lena she thinks about her and asks others for news. But Lila is not free of causing difficulties in their friendship. The pair vacillate between friendship and rivalry, each know what will help and hurt the other most, giving or taking depending on what they see as advantageous.
The brilliant thing about this book, aside from the sharp writing, is how much of a commentary on women’s lives it is without there actually being any direct commentary. It’s a case of showing not telling — Lila being beaten by her husband, her difficulty becoming pregnant attributed to her being somehow “wrong” or even evil, Lena getting a job and having to fend off advances from her boss, graduating college and wanting to teach at a university but everyone telling her to take the high school teacher’s exam. There is pressure from all sides to conform but once in a awhile a glimmer of another possibility shines through and they leap at the opportunities as they can.
Nonetheless, their choices lead them farther and farther away from what is expected of them, marks them as different. And at one point Lena wonders what advantage being different has gotten her when all she ever wanted to be was herself.
I am not certain when I will pick up the third novel, but I definitely will. I know these books have gotten a lot of buzz. And I know that many of you, like me, avoid books that get lots of attention. But if you are sitting on the fence about these, don’t worry, take the leap. In this case the buzz is for a good reason and you likely will not be disappointed.