The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante tr. By Ann Goldstein … Neapolitan Tetralogy Book 2

The Story of a New NameThe second in the tetralogy of books about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. The first book My Brilliant Friend I reviewed here.

Both girls were bright students in primary school, and perhaps because the story is narrated from Elena’s perspective she often sees herself in the shadow of her friend Lila, as if she must strive to attain her success, while Lila’s comes more naturally.

Lila fights to elevate herself, suggesting Elena studies with her to help her friend, thereby attaining the knowledge herself and through imposing her will on her husband, her family and business associates, who need her input and influence which she uses to both help them and to ensure her often rebellious stance is understood by them all.

It is Elena who despite her family circumstances progresses through high school and at the suggestion of a teacher applies to a university in Pisa where she can continue her studies.

Lila whose beauty and bravado bring her more to the attention of local boys wanting to move themselves up in the world financially, becomes entangled in their schemes and part of their negotiations and is married at sixteen to Stefano the grocer, partly in order to avoid the attention of the Solara brothers.

“How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.”

Through her personal notebooks that she entrusts to Elena for safekeeping and Elena’s inability to withhold from the temptation of what they offer, we too as readers understand more from within the bounds of Lila’s marriage and life than we might otherwise from the limited perspective of her friend, particularly during the frequent periods where the friendship was being tested and therefore withheld.

Though unwilling to be trapped inside marriage, Elena does envy her friend the space and luxury her new status as Signora Raffaella Carracci has given her and when Lila’s husband suggests a summer holiday on doctor’s orders to increase her chances of conceiving a child, Lila’s insistence that her friend accompany becomes Elena’s excuse to find a way to be in close proximity to Nino Sarratore, the brilliant student she has had a crush on for years. His arrival becomes a turning point in their lives, though not the outcome either of them were wishing for.

Pisa NormaleElena distances herself from Lila and from her family and moves to Pisa, where initially she struggles to brush off the ways of her neighbourhood, her origin, her accent, things that make it obvious to others she is not one of them. She throws herself into her studies and into becoming more like her contemporaries; a new boyfriend aids her transition.

“That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them….

They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labours or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia?…

And would my body too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body, but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighbourhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire,…”

Leaving Naples allows Elena to begin to reform herself, to blend in, the novel highlights the tension between the Neapolitan dialect spoken in her neighbourhood and the correct Italian spoken by the professional, educated classes. Dialect is associated with aggression, insults and anger, with all the negative emotions and difficult challenges of a repressed community, while the Italian symbolises upward mobility and refinement.

Napoletana“Be careful where all this studying leads, Lenu. Remember who you are and which side you’re on.”

I found Book 2 just as engaging as Book 1, more than just narrating the events that mould the two girls’ lives is the underlying philosophical question of whether one can rise above one’s origins via the attainment of significant wealth or education. Elena and Lila represent these twin avenues, in their attempt to escape their origins.

The novel continues to focus on the friendship of the two girls and their connections with others, both those from within their sphere and those they encounter outside, a measure of how far they have progressed in their aim to rise up and out of the confines of the neighbourhood.

The narrative is less dramatic than it might be by some of the omissions. Elena doesn’t recount much of her own dialogue with her boyfriends and much of the story is narrated or told, rather than putting the reader in the midst of the events as if to experience them. It is the psychological and philosophical elements of the placement of the two women in these situations that lend themselves a kind of accepted inevitability, we won’t be shocked by anything that happens, knowing their backgrounds, it is the lure of that question of whether either of them can or will escape their fate that entices us to read on.

Next Book in the Series: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (click title to read review)

21 thoughts on “The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante tr. By Ann Goldstein … Neapolitan Tetralogy Book 2

    • I think you might too, they’re not really dramatic or sensational and they are translated fiction, but definitely exactly the kind of thing I like, well drawn characters and an intriguing insight into another culture with the rumour of them being semi-autobiographical. I do love a good trilogy too🙂

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  1. Such an intriguing review. I will have to read this series. Based on the quotations you provided, it seems very well translated into English (so often Italian is translated into long, clumsy sentences, I’ve noticed!). Did you read the series in French to be closer to the original Italian or in English? My Italian is a little rusty so I’m not sure if I should read them in Italian to get back into it or in French – would love your input.

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    • I read them in English and I am also intrigued by the translation, particularly because there is much reference to things said in the Neapolitan dialect and things said in Italian. I don’t think it is written in dialect though, even in the original version.

      I read them the first two books on the kindle, so if I could read in Italian I’d download a sample to read and compare, I often do that with French books. Not sure if that helps you to decide!🙂

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  2. The social mobility aspect, the different paths the two women take to break away from their origins, is very interesting, isn’t it? And I love the way these books capture a sense of Naples, so much so that I can’t imagine them being set anywhere else.

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    • Yes, I’m intrigued by the Neapolitan dialect and have seen that you can even take classes in it. The symbolism of the dialect, of language and its relation to class and social status is so interesting, independent of intelligence, ability. It reminds me that even in Britain, to present the news on BBC for instance, you must have a certain accent and it’s one of the reasons I love listening to Sky News guest presenters, they invite all manner of intellectuals with their frequently ‘unheard speaking on such subjects’ accents that we’d never/rarely hear on the BBC. It made me realise (observing my own ignorant surprise) how we are being almost brainwashed into thinking that an accent/dialect implies more than just a tone of voice. True, it implies a certain geography, but it so refreshing to hear/read people defying the stereotypes. Though I am sure there are still people everywhere trying to change their accents.

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  3. I did write about these books and #ferrantfever generally on the And Other Stories blog recently. Apparently they are written in Italian with only the odd word/phrase in dialect. I have read all 3 ( and Days Of Abandonment) and am impatiently awaiting No 4!!

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    • Thanks to that hint about the fourth book, I’ve learnt a new word for the day and had to change the title of the post! Tetralogy. Clearly, there are very few as I really don’t recall ever hearing that word before. I am rocketing through Book 3 and so happy to know there will be another and that I’ll have caught up with all the #ferrantefever readers.

      Right I’m off to search out your review over at And Other Stories.

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  4. You’re ahead of me with Book 2. Must catch up to you😉 Needed something that had the feel of a breezy read (‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’) after ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.’

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    • I read a another novel after book 2 and but now there’s no holding me back, I can’t stop reading and yet want to slow down, Book 4 was only just published in the Italian yesterday, it’s going to be another year before the English translation! Maybe I should learn Italian?

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