The second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels picks up where the first one leaves off. We’re back at the wedding of 16-year-old Rafaella – Lila – Cerullo to neighbourhood grocer Stefano Caracci, the son of the shadowy Don Achille who was murdered in the first book. The wedding has just been interrupted by the appearance of the Solara brothers, a family with their fingers in all sorts of nefarious business and rumoured links to the Camorra. One of them is wearing the pair of shoes that Lila designed and sold to Stefano during their courtship, revealing he has made business dealings with them. Elena Greco, our narrator, observes from a back table, a picture of objective distance. But of course by now it is clear that one of this series’ achievements is exploring precisely how our closest relationships erode this objectivity, even our own sense of self.
What follows is simultaneously more sprawling and more contained. While the first novel was divided into two parts, The Story Of New Name is only one, simply entitled Youth. Broadly it charts the fortunes of Lila’s marriage to Stefano (hence the new name of the title), while Elena continues her studies, and ends in their early twenties. In fact Lila and Lenu, these “one in two, two in one”, have surprisingly little contact over the course of the novel: really only a few strained and harried encounters in which they exchange pleasantries that bely the deep currents of feeling underneath. The exception is the book’s lengthy middle section taking place again on the island of Ischia where Lila is sent to strengthen her body so it can become pregnant, insisting that Lenu accompanies her. There Lila makes the defining choice of the novel, the impact of which I have no doubt will spill beyond this installment.
In many ways The Story Of A New Name is simply, and literally, a continuation. But it’s here that it demonstrates the power of returning again to the same theme, deepening and enriching the idea that our closest friendships are a kind of Faustian pact. In the first novel it seemed clear to me that Lenu’s fortunes were on the rise while Lila’s were in descent, in fact Lila (widely described as a kind of devil incarnate by other characters) had performed a kind of sacrifice to aide her friend’s escape from the poverty of the neighbourhood. Broadly I still think the same, but there are more complicated ideas lurking around the edges. It no longer feels possible to describe their relationship as a one-way bargain, or of one kind. While Lenu physically escapes the neighbourhood, she remains intellectually attached to its traditions. Lila may be trapped – in her marriage, in the neighbourhood, in webs of crime – but her mind possesses a freedom of thought and expression that Lenu is besotted with and ruinously envious of.
It also deepens the series’ relationship with the Aeneid, which Lenu comes to study at university. As I understand the fourth book of the Aeneid tells the story of Dido and the Trojan hero Aeneus, who will go on to found Rome. Because he is duty-bound to do so, he must leave Dido, who kills herself. Throughout The Story Of A New Name there are interpolations of moments of the Aeneid: two lovers almost literally escape to a cave, a burning painting is a figurative funeral pyre. Broadly it seems that Ferrante is interested in flipping this foundational epic, asking what is the damage of this patriarchal, inexorable approach to history, and what does it do to those who dare attempt to escape it? Her observations of gender and class are finely honed and despairing:
We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.
Indeed I learned recently that this idea of absolute domination over one’s household – to treat those inside it as property – was first codified under Roman law. These novels are about the price of escape – escaping family, poverty, tradition, gender, history itself.
As in the first, the writing is like a perfect dessert – sweet, tart, crunchy, smooth – and every word of dialogue is so freighted it’s as if each banal interaction between Lila and Lenu is also an existential debate. It’s a treat.
Gay rating: 1/5 for mentions of homophobia, and the ever-deepening relationship between Lila and Lenu.