In last month’s blog post, we wrote about how obsessed we are with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. How there were near-fights over potential spoilers. How we were growing dark-circles from reading into the wee hours. It turns out that #ferrantefever is more than just a hashtag. It’s a real thing.
We’ve recommended her books to friends, siblings, parents, grandparents and other extraneous folk (I even accosted a man in Greece looking for something to read. Ahem), and it turns out that this Ferrante obsession stretches MUCH further than the Turnaround offices of Wood Green. Maybe you’re engrossed in one of the Neapolitan Novels as we write this. Maybe you’re overcome with the need to leave your office and take your copy out into this heatwave we’re experiencing. Maybe you have #ferrantefever, too. We hope so.
Whether you’ve read everything Ferrante’s ever written, are deep in the dramas of the Neapolitan Novels right this minute, or have a massive star next to Ferrante on your to-read list, you’re perhaps aware than this September the fourth and final book in the series is due for release. In anticipation of this auspicious event, we’ve been collecting our thoughts on the story so far and offering them up on this blog.
Up next is: The Story of a New Name, which continues directly from where My Brilliant Friend ended. There is tragedy, there is violence, there is a fair amount of heartache. There are politics, feminism, and class. And there is a summer spent on an island with sun and sea and ice cream. It’s quite something…
Many reviewers have noted that what makes Elena Ferrante so readable is her forensic attention to emotional detail. I’d agree with that, but there’s also a lot to be said for her extraordinarily evocative descriptions of place – which are all the more remarkable for their precise nature. The Story of a New Name contains these in an almost embarrassing abundance. It also contains one of the most engrossing long set-pieces I have ever come across, set in Ischia. Serving as the novel’s dramatic apex, it is flawless, moving the action along whilst evoking a very apt sense of teenage longing. Ferrante sets about conjuring these young women’s internal worlds with an unfussy and apparently effortless capacity for chronicling emotion. But really, I don’t need to sell this one to you; if you read My Brilliant Friend, you’ll already be powerless to resist the rest.
As with My Brilliant Friend, what really dominated The Story of a New Name is the blisteringly intense, painstakingly chronicled friendship between two young women, Lila and Elena (or Lina and Lenu). I’ve probably spoken about the BLARINGLY EXCEPTIONAL nature of this part of the Neapolitan Novels enough already (IT IS SO EXCELLENT MY GOD), so this time am going to focus on another interesting feature: the depiction of social class.
Lina and LenÚ are both from the same, poor district of Naples, referred to throughout simply as ‘the neighbourhood.’ As is standard for someone of her class, Lina stops going to school and enters the family business at around age 12, marrying at 15. Unusually, after being emotionally and financially supported by an interested teacher, Lenu goes on to study at middle school and remains single. The Story of a New Name starts at this point, with Lina (whose marriage has caused her to be ‘newly named’ Signora Carracci – geddit?) and Lenu still close and still living in the neighbourhood, but for the first time, experiencing the intricacies of its social mores from different positions.
It was, to me, incredible how the pattern of their experiences so closely matched some of my experiences and the experiences of other people I know or know of who have, in one way another, moved to an environment predominantly peopled by those of a different class to those they grew up around. The way Lenu’s advancing education causes her peers both to revere her and look down on her; her agony at feeling not part of their world anymore, when in reality nor is she yet part of a new world; Lina’s attempts to have the very best of what the neighbourhood can offer, but, due to her lack of education still being considered something akin to what the English upper classes might call ‘new money.’ There were so many touches in this novel that made me gasp with recognition of the English class system.
To be honest, part of what delayed my reading the Neapolitan Novels was a reticence about their relevance. I read a lot of contemporary fiction, and though I do also like to read about things which don’t directly concern me, doing so requires a particular type of concentration that I don’t always have. At the time everyone in the office was going on about Ferrante, I was busy and stressed outside of work and so was more in the ‘focus-range’ of titles I could relate to quickly and easily.
I thought that the Neapolitan Novels might be worthy, esoteric treatises on social class and fascism after World War 2. Which would be great – but not accessible to me right then. I was so wrong. They ARE worthy, esoteric treatises on social class and fascism after World War 2, but points are raised to subtly and are so wrapped up in the viscitudes of Lina and Lenu’s friendship that you hardly notice them being made. They are totally accessible and totally funny and totally lucid and totally gripping. READ THEM.
Being mostly quite self-centred in my reading, I generally tend towards contemporary settings, so wasn’t quite sure if I was up to the task of Ferrante. “Task” turned out to be a wholly unsuitable term. Her writing carries you along, until you’re hundreds of pages into the lives of Lila and Elena without even realising, the ebb and flow of their daily struggles turning the pages for you. I devoured My Brilliant Friend, feasting on the colour of Ann Goldstein’s translation, which maintains an Italian flair that subtly appears on the page every now and then.
The Story of a New Name was even more satisfying and doubly captivating. Having set up camp for myself in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples since Book One, I was absorbed by the diverging lives of both young women. The big thing about this book for me was Ferrante’s relentless efforts to put on show just how crazymaking life as a woman in a heavily patriarchal, capitalist society is.
Lila is tortured by her marriage, frantically oscillating between fleeting attempts at escape and being totally consumed by the stereotypical image of a successful wife. After the fairly glum Book One, A New Name is regularly and fiercely upsetting for anyone with sympathy for oppressed women. The strength of Ferrante’s writing is what prevents this novel from becoming too much – her characters are so solidly portrayed that they can bear the load of what’s happening without faltering.
Elena, our first-person narrator, is in herself a stunning meditation on how one can live without really knowing those around you. Lina is, for better or worse, her lifelong partner. She has a unique understanding of Lila’s motives and wishes, but even this doesn’t allow her to ever really speak openly with her best friend. The complications of growing into a marriageable age are for Elena unutterable, and I spent much of the novel sharing in her anguish and cringing for her, watching her flail as she attempts to navigate her own and her peers’ feelings.
Ferrante’s women are two of the most fully formed characters I’ve ever come across, and the Neapolitan Novels are less like a series and more like a journey with both – I’m in the UK all summer long so this trip to Naples makes the perfect getaway!
It’s impossible to have a favourite Neapolitan Novel. Not just because the books are one long story, but because they are all equally as good. Having said that, there were a lot of things about The Story of a New Name that really struck a chord. Maybe because, after becoming attached to Elena and Lila as if I grew up with them, I got to be there with them through the trickiest, most angsty and awkward period of their life; their adolescence.
If they’d grown up in Yorkshire in the 90’s, I like to think we’d have snuck cigarettes together behind the bike shed and listened to Riot Grrrl. As it is, I had to watch them struggle with rampant misogyny, violence, confusion and heartbreak from mid-century Naples instead.
Elena became more of a central character in this book for me, especially towards the end when she made it to university and left the neighbourhood behind her. I never not liked her, but I found myself really rooting for her in this book, especially when she made it as a writer (a female writer, and one who wrote a dirty scene to boot). Her experiences of being published generated feelings of absolute pride but also incredible anger, as the male literati couldn’t handle a woman writing about sex.
Lila on the other hand, who kind of got left behind, develops into an ever more complex human. Her actions are not always (read: often) commendable and her attitude towards Elena not entirely kind, but you can really feel the frustration of her situation; it practically punches you in the stomach and makes you just as angry and hurt as she herself is.
Once again, I could write essays about this book. I could chew your ear off in a pub until last orders. But I won’t. It’s just an incredible book, part of an incredible story. I actually don’t think I’ve read anything like it save possibly Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics, in that both follow two strong-willed, women over the span of an entire lifetime. In both, we see them grow-up and go through it and have fun and have some really shitty times. And because they feel like very real humans who do very real things, we get incredibly attached to them along the way.
The only other things I will say about the book are 1) THE ENDING! AGAIN! And 2) people REALLY need to stop comparing Ferrante to Jane Austen.
I think it’s safe to say we REALLY loved this. If you’ve read it and have any thoughts, leave us a comment! And keep an eye out next month when we’ll be writing about the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, just ahead of the final book’s release.
And remember: The Story of the Lost Child will be published by Europa Editions on the 3 September 2015. If you love Ferrante as much as we do, we know you’re likely counting down the days!