The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
There’s something I find incredibly addictive about the world of Lena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will remember that I was introduced to the Neapolitan Novels when I picked up My Brilliant Friend in a bookshop last year; I absolutely loved it, and immediately added the rest of the series to my Christmas list. Enough time had passed between reading My Brilliant Friend and starting The Story of a New Name that I had somewhat forgotten the pull this series had on me, but it only took a handful of chapters for me to become utterly absorbed again.
The main narrative of The Story of a New Name picks up at the exact moment that My Brilliant Friend left off, at Lila’s wedding. However, as with My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante takes a chapter to give the reader an insight into what the girls’ friendship will become later on in their lives. In My Brilliant Friend, this opening gives Lena the opportunity to explain why she has decided to write everything: that, in some way, it is an act of rebellion against Lila. In The Story of a New Name, the reader gains no more insight into the Lena who is writing the story, but does gain an explanation as to why Lena knows so much about the parts of Lila’s life she wasn’t present for: she had access, for a time, to Lila’s journals. On a practical level, these insights from Lena later in life are necessary for the plausibility of the narrative, providing the why and how Lena is writing their story; however, they also give the reader a fuller insight into the characters themselves and their motivations.
From Lila’s wedding, the main narrative follows the two girls as they adjust to the changes in their positions: Lena, as she struggles to maintain the label of ‘Brilliant Friend’ that Lila has given her, and Lila as she struggles in an abusive marriage to a man she now realises she never really knew. As the girls’ story continues, the reader becomes aware of the distance growing between Lena, now successful and flourishing at school, and Lila, caught up in the tangle of relationships and violence that define their neighbourhood. In The Story of a New Name, the reader sees the first real break in their often-fraught friendship, one which has not been fully resolved by the close of the novel.
For me, the real strength of Ferrante’s writing comes through in the distinctive voice of Lena as she records her friendship with Lila. Lena is flawed, holding silent grudges in a friendship which has been somewhat unhealthily codependent from the start; yet her anger and confusion seem so real and utterly absorbing. Through Lena’s words, the reader becomes as fascinated by Lila’s life as Lena herself is, unable to fully distance herself even when she is at her most angry. The plethora of characters who pass in and out of the main narrative are seen through Lena’s eyes, yet continue to have a depth that reaches far beyond what the reader sees of them: this comes particularly clear towards the closing stages of the novel, when the reality of the various relationships throughout the neighbourhood come to light. As much as Lena tries to distance herself from the neighbourhood in which she grew up, it is these characters that shine through her words most compellingly, as Lila’s presence continually draws her back to the place they called home for so long.
Similarly to My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name ends on a cliff-hanger. I have the next installment in the Neapolitan Novels on my TBR pile so I will not have so long a wait until I can discover what happens next. It is tempting, very tempting, to plough straight on into Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; however, I think that for me it is the absorbing nature of Lena and Lila that compels me to not want to leave that world more so than the cliffhanger. Overall, this was a skillfully written novel that had me absorbed the whole time I was reading; I would definitely recommend this series of novels.