With The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante picks up where she left off in My Brilliant Friend, following the lives of her two protagonists, Lila and Elena, from adolescence into their 20s. The novel, the second volume in a trilogy, is a treatise on Naples: the place of women, the economy and daily life in a part of Italy that has nothing in common with Rome, Florence or Milan. Even the language is barely the same. Anne Goldstein's excellent translation notes when the women are speaking in dialect or speaking "school Italian." In all ordinary or familial exchanges, dialect prevails, especially for cursing.
The two girls have a complex, intense relationship, with Lila leading the way and Elena trying to accommodate--at least at first. Lila has pulled herself out of the abject poverty of her childhood with an early marriage to a grocer's son, whom she hates. Elena has continued studying, graduating from high school and going to university in Pisa. She knows she is a misfit, not well dressed, too loud, ill-informed about the world--she brings Naples with her everywhere she goes.
Elena has been in love with Nino for what seems like her whole life. She orchestrates visits to the beach where he will be and, in a particularly poignant and heart-rending scene, allows herself to be deflowered by his father. In a cruel twist, Lila becomes sexually obsessed with Nino, and he with her. Their affair causes scandal all around, results in the birth of a child and drives a wedge between Lila and Elena that may be irreparable.
So far, this sounds like the stuff of soap opera, but it truly is not. The situations detailed in the novel feel strongly autobiographical, and Ferrante's writing is convincingly real. By the end, Lila is living in poverty again and Elena has just had a book published. The book is a recollection of her childhood, her friendship with Lila, her school experiences and the people they know. Are there echoes here of a story within a story? (The author is reclusive; indeed, there is speculation that "Elena Ferrante" is someone else entirely.)
At the beginning of The Story of a New Name, Elena, now in late middle age, receives a telephone call from Lila's son telling her that Lila has disappeared. What surprises will the next volume in Ferrante's trilogy bring? --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: Volume two in Ferrante's clearly rendered, psychologically dense trilogy about two women coming of age in Naples.