The Story of a New Name is a whirlwind account of friendship, rivalry, and waning interdependency between two women—Lila and Lenú—who have grown up together in a lower-class neighborhood of post-war Naples. We see events largely through the eyes of Lenú, who admires and measures herself against the more attractive, outgoing, and impulsive Lila, but in the book’s first few pages we learn that Lila has given Lenú a box of journals, demanding that no one was to read them and making Lenú swear she herself won’t open the box “for any reason.” Of course, Lenú has hardly sat down on the bus before opening the heavy box, and the insights she gleans from these often random scribblings allow her to paint a more complete picture of Lila’s inner life during the period she goes on to describe in great detail.
Author Elena Ferrante chronicled the shared childhood of these girls in My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012), and she wastes little time here moving the story along. The early part of the book deals with Lila’s impulsive marriage, at the age of sixteen, to Stefano, the son of a grocery-store owner who’s invested heavily in her own family’s small shoe-making business. Two incidents set the tone of this new phase in Lila’s life: At her wedding reception, Marcello, a member of the powerful but arrogant and widely feared Solara family, shows up wearing a pair of shoes Lila had designed herself and given to Stefano as a love token, and Lila throws a fit. Stefano later explains that Lila’s own brother, Rino Cerullo, had also been party to the gift, which was intended to bolster a “collaboration” between the Solara and Cerullo families. This tension between personal affections and family business interests keeps the plot simmering throughout the book.
Later that evening, Stefano resorts to violence in the course of consummating the union, and Lila suddenly realizes that she’s married to a brutal stranger. Yet when she returns to the neighborhood from her honeymoon, blackened and bruised, the general attitude seems to be that someone has finally put Lila in her place. Still, Lila has a suddenly loftier position in the local social hierarchy, with a new house and car, nice clothes, and an influential role in running the grocery store, and this estranges her from Lenú, who’s still going to school and is dismayed by her friend’s increasingly outlandish swagger and focus on material things. Meanwhile, Lenú pines for the brilliant and studious Nino, another figure from the neighborhood, who unfortunately happens to be dating Nadia, the daughter of Professor Giuliana, whom Lenú esteems highly.
Ferrante’s description of these and other tangled interrelations between individuals and families carries the flavor of intense adolescent emotion. It’s an appealing tone in small doses, but readers may begin to wonder whether the narrator’s inability to distinguish clearly between important developments and petty exchanges is shared by the author herself. The novel gains in narrative focus, however, when Lila hires Lenú to accompany her on a seaside vacation with her mother and her sister-in-law Pinuccia. (An Index of Characters in the front of the book will be greatly appreciated by those who have not read My Brilliant Friend.) Lenú agrees to come, only after deviously convincing Lila to change her vacation to a locale where Nino is spending the summer. All summer long, she and Lila meet up with Nino and his rich friend Bruno daily on the beach during the week, though on weekends Stefano (Lila’s husband) and Pinuccia’s fiancé Rino (who is Lila’s brother, as you may recall) arrive to have some fun.
Alas, Lenú, always the sensible, prudent one, is the last to figure out that Nino, though still dating Nadia, is actually in love with the now-married Lila—just like everyone else. It occurs to her at roughly the same time that perhaps she has spent her life on the sidelines watching Lila and others grab for one brass ring after another because she never shares her true feelings with anyone. Digging a little deeper, she muses: “Did I keep my feelings muted because I was frightened by the violence with which, in fact, in my innermost self, I wanted things, people, praise, triumphs?” She begins to wonder whether her desire to rise above her condition, to speak Italian well—rather than the coarse Neapolitan dialect used in her neighborhood—has driven her to avoid exposing herself honestly in any way, for fear of making a mistake.
Even her unrequited affection for Nino seems to be based largely on admiration of his lofty ideas and intellectual prowess. She enjoys listening to him talk, though she often has no idea what he’s talking about. Decentralization? Economic planning on a regional basis? Africa? The Social Democrats?
We went on like that for at least an hour. Isolated from the shouting around us, its coarse dialect, we felt exclusive, he and I alone, with our vigilant Italian, with those conversations that mattered to us and no one else. What were we doing? A discussion? Practicing for future confrontations with people who had learned to use words as we had? An exchange of signals to prove to ourselves that such words were the basis of a long and fruitful friendship? A cultivated screen for sexual desire? I don’t know. I certainly had no particular passion for those subjects, for the real things and people they referred to. I had no training, no habit, only the usual desire not to make a bad showing. It was wonderful, though—that is certain.
Some readers may reach the end of this longish book wishing the narrator had spent more time exploring the political and academic controversies of post-war Italy, and less on the often squalid rivalries, infidelities, threats of violence, and general bad blood stewing in her old neighborhood, which sometimes call to mind low-budget Neorealist films of the era. Lenú feels nowhere so at home as in the parlor of Profession Giuliani, yet she can’t shake the conviction that there is more vitality to be found on the streets of Naples than in verbose political controversies or the acutely circumscribed subject matter that academics find so fascinating.
It’s difficult to hold a story together in which we get to know the central character largely through the eyes of a less flamboyant admirer. Eventually we may weary of Lenú’s incessant self-depreciation, and wonder when she’ll finally accept the fact that others try to convince her of from time to time: you’re smarter than Lila, you’re prettier than Lila. In the end, Lenú’s gifts of observation and general decency compensate for occasional tiresome patches in the storytelling. At one point, for example, as she watches Lila and Nino flirting shamelessly on the beach, she notes that Nino is friendlier than she’d ever see him before. “I thought: the fact that Lila is married isn’t an obstacle for him or for her, and that observation seemed to me so odiously true that it turned my stomach, and I brought a hand to my mouth.”
Lila’s character is less easy to admire. She’s generous and spiteful by turns, stricken by an impetuous desire to experience life that drives her to arrange things so that they suit her best, confident that she can handle whatever consequences may ensue. By the end of The Story of a New Name, that confidence has been shaken, though the last two words in the book will leave most readers eager to follow the story of Lena and Lenú to its conclusion in volume three, forthcoming soon in English translation.