The second of Ferrante’s four addictive books about close friends Lenu and Lila in 1950s Naples continues where she left off in My Brilliant Friend, with Lila’s disastrous marriage to Stefano Carracci at the tender age of sixteen.
SPOILER ALERT – if you think you might like to read these books, make sure you start with the review of the first, My Brilliant Friend, elsewhere on this blog.
By inheriting money from his loan shark father and overcharging his customers, grocery store owner Stefano has become a wealthy man. He seduces Lila with the promise of a comfortable life but at their wedding his questionable morals become apparent to her. As revenge, Lila turns her back at her husband on their wedding night, with dire consequences.
Stefano, who sees himself as the victim of Lila’s moods and stubbornness, claims he’s given no choice but to beat her.
With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on purpose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever, ever would have wanted.
With Lila married and in another stage of life, Lenu feels left behind, her own schoolwork seeming grey and mundane compared with Lila’s glamorous, grown-up existence. Yet, as Lenu moves on to university in Pisa a whole different world opens to her; surrounded and accepted by intellectuals, she blossoms.
Coming back to Naples is difficult. Lenu feels like an outsider, even when speaking to her own mother. ‘I expressed myself in a way that was to complex for her, although I made an effort to speak in dialect…’
The fickle Lila develops into an even more complicated, manipulative and, at times, downright evil, person. The more trapped she feels in her marriage, the more vicious she is to her friend. Lenu grins and bears it and, sometimes, even she wonders why.
Why did I always have ready a gracious smile, a happy laugh, when things went badly? Why, sooner or later, did I always find plausible excuses for those who made me suffer?
Although she excels academically, Lenu lacks the confidence to walk away from Lila. Deep down she knows that Lila is her superior, not only in her looks, her wealth and adult life as a married woman, but also intellectually. She doesn’t feel complete without her. Even when Lila laments about her love for Nino Sarratore, who, as Lila knows, is also Lenu’s big love, Lenu patiently listens.
She tells me how much she desires the person I’ve desired forever, and she does so convinced that I – through insensitivity, through a less acute vision, through incapacity to grasp what she, instead, is able to grasp – have never truly understood that same person, never realized his qualities.
But the jealousy is mutual. Lila’s envious of Lenu’s schooling, freedom and prospects. Just when you think they have abandoned each other for good, a magnetic force brings them together. Each one is not complete without the other. Yet, as time passes their fortunes diverge in shockingly different ways.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking this book sounds like a bad daytime soap opera, to a certain extent, a soap opera is what it is. But there’s real depth and nuances of relationships here, it’s written with an intense honesty and is so convincing that it’s hard not to suspect that at least some of it is autobiographical. If we haven’t ourselves been in a Lenu and Lila-like friendship, we’ve have surely observed one.
Ferrante’s books operate on so many levels: the psychology of friendship, the triple curse of poverty, misogyny and domestic abuse, the social hierarchy of Naples’ slums and the almost insurmountable task of escaping it all.
A bit tighter editing would have made The Story of a New Name an even better book and I missed a deeper insight into Lenu’s own family. Apart from that, The Story of a New Name is just as addictive reading as My Brilliant Friend. I need to find out what happens next and will, for sure, read the third book.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante is published by Europa Editions, 471 pages.