My rating: 4 stars
Elena Ferrante’s ability to write a compelling story about female friendship is impressive. In História do Novo Nome (The Story of a New Name in the English translation), words flow so effortlessly that even the most common events in the characters’ lives are gripping. As in the first and previous instalment of the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, which I’ll be spoiling, there are various reflections on class, equality and how even through education it’s difficult to achieve social mobility.
The narrator and main character, Elena, recalls that in the spring of 1966 her friend Lila asked her to keep a box containing eight notebooks, making her promise never to read them. She was afraid her husband would discover them. Elena read them, though. What she learnt is used to give more information about the events she didn’t witness and to summarise what happened to Lila in the first book – the story she wrote as a child; how she wasn’t allowed to continue studying after primary school; her father not liking the designs of her shoes; and her displeasure when Marcello Solara arrived at her wedding party wearing the shoes that she had designed and that her husband, Stefano Carracci, had bought.
The relationship between Elena and Lila was not the best at the time. The following November, Elena threw the box into a river. Her curiosity was making Lila’s life invading hers, and she couldn’t deal with that anymore. She then starts recalling what she experienced immediately after her friend’s wedding. She felt that she should live her life in the same way as Lila – to accept life in the neighbourhood, marry Antonio, abandon school and stop trying to achieve a better life. The following weeks she wandered around Naples instead of attending classes but told no one.
She encountered Lila after her honeymoon and realised that she hadn’t understood everything that had happened previously. Lila’s father, brother and husband had made an agreement with the Solara family on her friend’s back to make the shoe business grow. Contrary to what Elena had thought, Lila was not happy about it. But Stefano had hit her. When they arrived at Almafi, she was not concerned about the shoes any longer. It was her marriage that she saw as a mistake. She didn’t want to have sex with him, but Stefano raped her.
Interestingly, as Elena was wishing to do the same things as her friend, Lila desired to change her decision to marry. She was a victim of domestic violence, and her new last name repulsed her. Who she was before was being erased and forced into a new identity. She didn’t want Elena to quit school. So, she made her study at her house almost every day. Elena was in awe of all the things Lila could buy, but was aware that she felt lonelier than her, at least until she started going out with their old friends again.
Elena’s boyfriend, Antonio, was always scared that she would leave him and revealed a possessive side. And in truth whom Elena truly liked was Nino Sarratore. Antonio didn’t want to do the mandatory military service mainly because he was afraid of losing her. He asked Elena to discover through Lila how Stefano had managed to avoid doing it. Lila then learnt that her husband had paid someone and that it had been the Solara who took care of everything. He hadn’t established an alliance with them just for business reasons.
There was a veiled tension and competition between the two young women at the time. Their friendship was full of conflicting sentiments, and Ferrante portrays them convincingly. Elena struggled to understand some of Lila’s actions and behaviours towards her. She sometimes believed that she was trying to humiliate her. But it can also be inferred that at certain occasions she was trying to awake in Elena the competitiveness that used to make her succeed at school. Elena didn’t always say how she truly felt, and Lila was constantly trying to prove herself able to achieve what she wanted, sometimes with no regard for others. She was also afraid that Elena would leave her because she was not as good as her. Although Elena occasionally felt hostility towards Lila, she couldn’t end their friendship.
The main focus of the novel is the friendship between Elena and Lila, but there are also quick mentions to the political and scientific topics of the time, which help to set the story in a specific period. Once, one of Elena’s teachers, Galiani, told her to go to a conference about the theory of evolution of Darwin. And during a party at Galiani’s house, people discussed colonialism, fascism and communism, for example. Elena at that instance said that she didn’t want to live in a world at war. Her generation shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and the only war admissible was against nuclear weapons. Her ideas were appreciated by her teacher.
However, people from the poorest neighbourhoods in Naples were not always respected or taken seriously, even Elena. The characters have thought-provoking conversations about class and how to achieve equality. Social status was crucial to be perceived as worthy, and notwithstanding how much money someone from their neighbourhood could get, they weren’t seen as equals by others. The differences in behaviour between the people whom Elena grew up with and her newest acquaintances made her feel ashamed sometimes.
The lives of the characters are engrossing, thanks to a simple but absorbing writing style. Nevertheless, there is a certain period in Elena’s life that could have been further explored. Unfortunately, it was just mentioned in passing, since it doesn’t involve Lila. The book focuses mainly on their friendship and the events that ended up being important for both of them. I would have liked to know more about what Elena did on her own, though.
The Story of a New Name has a suspenseful ending that left me curious to discover what happened to Elena and Lila during their adult life.