I quickly moved on to The Story of a New Name by Elene Ferrante, after completing the first of the Neapolitan Quartet quite recently:
This volume was equally good. Amazingly, as this is just the story of two girls growing up in Naples, I found it a real page turner.
The children were born in the same Neapolitan slum, but their lives took them in different directions. As volume two of the narrative develops, these differences widen into a chasm, yet the girls maintain their connection.
The second volume begins with a brief explanation that Lila has given the author, Elena, for safekeeping, a box containing Lila’s journals and notes. This device allows Elena to narrate her own story, intertwined with that of her childhood friend, giving her a kind of insight into both characters.
The Story of a New Name describes the unhappy marriage of Lila to a local businessman, and Lena’s continuing education.
The family arguments and business dealings and disputes that preoccupy Lila have a kind of universal significance. They are about gender politics and power in a patriarchal society. In a more specific way they focus on corruption in Naples, on treachery and betrayal, on manipulation and the truly corrupt nature of capitalism. There are shadows in the background throughout – fascists, communists, the mafia perhaps: these add a kind of further political dimension.
For Lena the problem is still how to fit in at school, and in the new world to which her education introduces her. It’s essentially about social class, though that’s a simplification. And of course these girls are teenagers, so it’s a book about love.
Nino is the character that bridges the two stories. Lena has been in love with him forever. Lila sees him as an untidy fool. He is the son of Sarratore, poet and sleazy adulterer, and hates his father. Whilst narrating the story of Lila’s marriage, the parallel story of Lena’s school days begins to focus on her admiration for this character. He is charismatic, intelligent, intellectual. The centre point of the novel is a summer holiday trip when Lila and Lena stay on a local island where Nino is also staying.
These days on the beach are described in detail. In a way they are at the heart of the novel, and of the relationship between the girls, which is as competitive as ever. Lena has always been in awe of Lila’s beauty and intelligence. In this section there is a sense of that jealous intimacy that can typify strong friendships: it’s kind of petty and demeaning, but understandable. It’s not humanity at its best. I found it hardest to sympathise with either of the girls here. In fact I found their behaviour, and the book itself at this point, a bit annoying.
I suppose that’s why I’ll leave a gap now before going on to volume three. Volume two ended in a way that was perhaps a bit ominous, and a bit obvious. I’m not sure I can put myself through it yet.
Back to the review. Again this is a story of two girls from my generation so that increased my interest. I was surprised by the girls’ strong minded behaviour, by their willingness to break the rules in that very Catholic society. The insights into Italian society were interesting.
Lila is a fascinating character. She is beautiful and clever, strong minded and opinionated, and she is the victim of the Italian male characters – violent, capricious, dishonest, disloyal, hypocritical. There are no male heroes: most of the men are untrustworthy, manipulative, selfish. She is an object of their desire. The most moral of the male characters is taciturn and one dimensional – a silent rock, but nothing more. And yet the author doesn’t really ever make these criticisms explicit: their actions speak for themselves, a great strength of the novel.
You should read this book. It’s full of characters and events, a great read.
A warning though – the translator is a complete stranger to the apostrophe. In the end you can still follow the story, but it is a bit annoying, all those run on clauses. Is that because the Italians don’t really care about sentences the way I do? I doubt it.