Thursday, January 28, 2021

Elena Ferrante - The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name is an extraordinary novel about two young women, Lila and Elena, growing
up in Naples in the early 1960s. At sixteen Lila marries the shopkeeper Stefano. She is filled with pleasure at her new wealth, and horror at the life she has chosen. Elena's own attempts at romance seem to be sabotaged by Lila's turbulent affairs. As she tries to plot her way out of poverty via academic and literary success, her constant anxiety is that she is just a shadow of the brilliant Lila. The sequel to My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name continues the enthralling chronicle of a friendship that is obsessive, loving, complicated, hurtful, enduring and constantly startling. It is an exhilarating reading experience.

Comment: The Brilliant Friend series by mysterious author Elena Ferrante has been quite the success. I've read the first book back in 2019 and despite the fact it was a good read, it wasn't as intriguing as I was led to believe. I thought I might not read the following ones but I did find them at my local library so I decided I was interested enough to spend the time trying to see where the story would be going.

In this second volume, our protagonists Elena and Lila are now young women, not quite yet on their 20s, and we will see what happens to them while they are young. Lila, as we know, is married already, a way she found to be someone while still a part of the neighborhood. Elena is still studying but feels conflicted between her wishes to leave and be someone on her own right or staying and never leave her identity as a local girl. The two aren't always together and their particular experiences lead them into different paths but when they meet one another, will their friendship survive as it has been as when they were children?

Again, I can see the appeal of these books. The author has a very direct, clear voice and the kinds of things she reports - as if character Elena is telling us about it - are mundane and everyday and an example of what reality must have been for those who lived in neighborhoods as the one depicted in the book. Even more so considering the time in which the action takes place although (and I suppose that's the beauty of this) if one were to travel now to Naples and spy on the lives of those who have lived there their whole lives, things might not be too different.

This book presents us with two young adult girls but don«t believe this will be the kind of narrative one could expect from YA romances. It can be said that, deep down, it's not that different for love and worries and doubts abound as they would in any book featuring girls the age of the protagonists but the setting makes the difference. Women simply haven't been the same rights nor the same treatment throughout the times and this book does exalt the machismo one still finds in such cultural backgrounds. I could see how realistic things were depicted (I, too, live in a country in the south of Europe) and even with evolution, the actual reality isn't that different from the kinds of things one sees here.

However, no matter how well portrayed, this is still a fictional story and I wanted the characters I root for to be a little more... clever. I suppose that is it. Ok, it's true that leaving cultural bonds and family traditions cannot be easy, otherwise anyone would always leave an unbearable situation or would make quick choices for the future. But I wish both Elena and Lila had been more cunning, clever, somehow resourceful before they saw themselves dealing with annoying situations. As a reader, for me personally, it was extremely irritating to see negative/bad things coming, and the characters instead of finding a way to get out of the way, stumbled into them anyway.

Yes, I can see how this is the challenge, the beauty of the writing, how easy it is to see we could be in their shoes and make the same choices were we to live their lives but putting aside the interest in the writing style and complex personalities, the plot choices truly annoyed me. I confess I skimmed a few chapters, so annoyed I was at what was happening.

As for the characters' development, well, how easy it is to feel like we could all be Elena! She is the narrator and we can't escape her feelings of jealousy and loneliness and even the "out of place" vibe she lets us glimpse no matter where she is. Still, how complex and intriguing and I suppose if I'm still reading it has to be to know what she will do next. Lila, on the other hand, is the embodiment of that person we know could do anything were the circumstances different. She is larger than life, she is brave and smart but also a prisoner of her choices. 

When the book ends, we are aware of what these two have been doing in their youth and how their grown up lives are being shaped, so the next volume must be about their maturity. I will read the rest of the series even anticipating I might not enjoy all aspects of the books, that is how complex and alluring Lila and Elena are.

Grade: 6/10

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