The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

This is part two of a trilogy, The Neapolitan Novels, and after I read the first book, My Brilliant Friend, I kept my eye out for The Story of a New Name. Ferrante writes with incredible energy and passion about two friends: Lila (sometimes called Lina) and Elena, growing up in a neighborhood of Naples. Ferrante’s psychological insights about the nature of friendship drive this riveting story.

The first novel starts in the 1950s, with the two girls in elementary school, where they are drawn together by their academic brilliance, but driven apart by the competition between them. The story is told by Elena, who often has difficulty understanding why her volatile, ambitious friend behaves the way she does. That often puts the reader in a knowing position, watching and waiting for the proverbial other shoe to fall. The two novels are filled with the details of life in their poor neighborhood; all Elena’s and Lila’s friends want to do better than their parents, but they are often stymied about how to make that happen. Opportunities are just opening up after recovery from World War II but for the women it’s still difficult to believe they have choices beyond marrying early and having kids. Elena wants more and fights for the chance for education and a career; Lila wants more as well, but takes a different, more traditional road. She can’t extricate herself from the old expectations and this has devastating consequences for everyone who comes in contact with her. She’s a force of nature and one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve encountered.

Warning: book two has a cliffhanger ending that brings the reader up short. After spending time with these characters it’s hard to wait for the final volume. I’m haunted by both women–Elena’s choices, Lina’s increasingly desperate decisions.

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