‘The Story of a New Name’ is the second in the series of Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. The book opens with Lila asking Elena to hide a box of notebooks from her husband. Instead, Elena dumps them in the river but not without reading them first and the story continues where the first book ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ left off with Lila leaving school and getting married to Stefano Carracci, a well-off local grocer. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is tempestuous from the very beginning while Elena is planning to continue her education and go to university.
The themes of female friendship and how it affects both Elena and Lila’s individual identities remains central to the series. Having left behind their early childhood, ‘The Story of a New Name’ focuses on Elena and Lila’s late adolescence and early adulthood during the 1960s and 1970s. Ferrante masterfully combines Elena’s memories with Lila’s version of events as documented in her notebooks to drive the narrative and although Elena is the narrator, it also ensures another side of the story is heard this time. Aside from the two main characters, Ferrante continues to tell a wider and equally complex story of Italian society in the post-war era and there is further development of the large ensemble cast in their neighbourhood.
Although I would have liked to have read more about Elena’s life at university studying literature at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Ferrante allows the story to have a sort of effortless and fluctuating structure and pace where characters come and go naturally as they do in real life. Similarly, seemingly insignificant or everyday events and conversations are brought into focus while several years can pass by in a flash. One of the main set pieces of this volume involves a holiday to Ischia and the developing affair between Lila and Nino Sarratore, who Elena secretly loves. Yet the jealousy is mutual as Elena continues her education on a more independent path which Lila is unable to pursue further studies and feels trapped in her unhappy marriage. Their intense friendship continues to oscillate between rivalry and intimacy, competing for attention both from each other as well as their friends, lovers and families.
Overall, it is the nuances in the characters and their relationships which demonstrate Ferrante’s exceptional talent for “showing” rather than “telling” a story. I adored both ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and ‘The Story of a New Name’ and the Neapolitan novels are shaping up to be one of my all-time favourite series. I’m looking forward to reading the third volume ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ before the fourth and final book in the series ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ is published next month.