The story of a new name by Elena Ferrante
Trans. by Ann Goldstein. Text, 2013. ISBN 9781922147684.
(Age: Senior secondary) Highly recommended. The Story of a new name is the second volume in the series that began with My Brilliant friend. It is an absorbing continuation of the story of two girls' lives and their friendship, and of the city, Napoli, where they live. In this volume Lila is now a married woman, having decided that her future will not be served by continuing her education. Elena, or Lenu, stays on at school, and disciplines herself to put many hours into her study. She envies Lila her new wealth, but knows that Lila's tempestuous and brilliant spirit will not find happiness with her wealthy but unimaginative husband. She also feels that Lila will thwart her in romance, which happens when Lila and Nino, who Lenu loves, have an affair resulting in a child and Lila's abandonment. Lenu recognizes too that Lila is a true creative spirit who can achieve many things despite her lack of education. The sinister Solara brothers also recognize Lila's potential and are determined that she will not escape from the control they exercise over her husband and family. Lenu scores high grades in her final exams at school and wins a scholarship to a university in Pisa, where she learns to eradicate signs of Napoli from her speech and her manners. She graduates, having written a thesis on the Aeneid, and becomes engaged to a promising classicist, the son of influential academics. However, she understands that this learning has nothing to do with her, with her poor family and her harried but malicious mother, with the violence of the streets and homes of Napoli, or with her friend who has always seemed to understand how life works. In desperation Lenu writes a novel that is based on their lives and that reveals the desperate and sordid struggle that most of the people she grew up with experience. Lila has by now recognized that wealth is no answer, but poverty too cramps the spirit; to support her child she takes work in a sausage making factory, work that is brutal and damaging. When Lenu, knowing that her novel owes much to Lila, finds her Lila is pleased about Lenu's success but has herself found a new goal. The volume ends with the launch of Lenu's novel and re-entry of an unexpected character.
This is an engrossing novel. It is perceptive about the nature of families in such situations, about the limits of parental care and about the every-day violence that is inflicted on children and wives. It is perceptive, too, about the role of education, and how it is a beacon promising change and a better life, but how it doesn't always relate to the reality of students' lives. Lenu doesn't fit in to Napoli any more but where does she fit? She has learning but not the contacts or culture required for a university lecturer. The novel is also perceptive about the small-time crooks who run the streets and businesses, and who are experts in terror and extortion. The main theme is that of the nuanced friendship between the two young women and it clearly shows that push and pull that exists between friends who have lived through childhood together and had the same ambitions, but whose lives deviate in adulthood. It is highly recommended for senior readers.