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Three Guys One Book: "You are not to turn away from The Story of A New Name if you haven't read the first novel . . . Eventually, you'll go back out of sheer absorption . . . and read My Brilliant Friend anyway."

Date: Oct 30 2013

This Europa release is Book Two of the Neapolitan Novels. I’d rather call it Book Two in the love/hate relationship between characters Elena and Lila.

I’m issuing a Three Guys fatwa that you are not to turn away from The Story of A New Name if you haven’t read the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, also reviewed on this site. You’ll soon be caught up in the new story even if you don’t know the background.

Besides, Europa provides a cast of characters list, describing family ties, between the roughly two dozen characters that mostly live in one hardscrabble neighborhood in Naples in the 1960’s. Eventually, you’ll go back out of sheer absorption in the Elena and Lila friendship and read My Brilliant Friend anyway.

Lila, in dire straits, has entrusted a metal box with eight notebooks of her memories to life-long friend, Elena. Elena was told not to open the box for any reason. As soon as Elena gets on her train, she opens the box.

This allows the novel to stay in first person with Elena who, because she has read Lila’s notebooks, is much less limited in what she knows. First person stories have an immediacy that can’t be matched. Opening the Pandora’s box solves the narrative problem of how Elena knows enough to carry the story forward.

Signora Raffaella Carracci: That’s Lila’s new name. It represents her desperate gamble to escape poverty, especially after her limited-means parents refuse to pay for the continuance of her education. Lila’s potentially the brightest student in her class but is left behind as hard grinding Elena moves forward in school and wins the plaudits that might have been Lila’s. Not that Elena’s family aren’t poor as well. But Lila’s family has even fewer resources.

Lila’s marriage at sixteen caps My Brilliant Friend. In Story of a New Name we experience the rude cold shower of her marriage to grocery store owner, Stefano. From poverty Lila has moved into her neighborhood’s one percent. She has a beautiful apartment with clothes and jewelry to match but her chances to develop her mind and fulfill her heart are stamped out.

Lila on her wedding ring: “What have I done, she thought, dazed by wine, and what is this gold circle, this glittering zero I’ve stuck my finger in.”

Elena on her future: Is it possible that our parents never die, that every child inevitably conceals them in himself? Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?

Writers store wisdom in their volumes like bees accrete honey. And because each writer’s wisdom is unique, you have to keep reading books to get at all the sweetness in literature. When reading, I feel like a bear raiding a hive.

Ferrante’s characters suffer great unhappiness in their quixotic attempts to live through others. Elena tries to find fulfillment by living inside her best friend, Lila. Elena acts like a coat on a rack that doesn’t come alive unless she is draped over her friends.

Her soul sister Lila is presented to the reader in a barrage of new outfits, new looks. For Lila, clothes and a hairstyle can be weapons to express her dissatisfaction with her life.

Lila, as volatile as she is, fights not to remain in stasis. The outfits change, not Lila. She’s like an animal being flayed alive in an illegal trap.

Elena stays drab. It’s all she can afford. But it’s Elena who manages to find release.

Cutting herself off from emotional dependence, from the old ties, Elena starts living for herself. It sounded selfish to me when I was reading about this decisive shift in Elena. But it saves her life.

Ferrante sends us a clear signal of the change in Elena when she moves out of her parents’ apartment in Naples to go to Pisa to attend university.

Lila, in contrast, moves many more times than Elena. But in all those frantic moves she never strays that far from the old neighborhood.

It’s almost as if Elena becomes so independent that you feel she is about to walk off the page and leave her old friends behind. Do friendships ever survive such stress and rupture? If this friendship was a bridge, would it collapse?

There’s one more Neapolitan novel to come from Europa Editions and Elena Ferrante. Then we’ll finally find out what happens to Elena and Lila.

-Dennis Haritou

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