The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante is the second volume of a trilogy. It is a novel of a complex friendship between two women, Lenú and Lila, that goes forward with intellectual intimacy, competition, loyalty, anger, and excruciating love. In the first book of this series, My Brilliant Friend, Lenú, in her sixties, learns that Lila has disappeared. She recreates their girlhood sharing fairytale dreams to escape a post-war Neapolitan neighborhood bleeding from fatalism and old betrayals. Lila, risk-taker and quick study, and Lenú the striver carry on friendly competition in school. Lenú is allowed to continue her education while Lila is compelled to work with her shoemaker father. Lenú begins rigorous secondary studies. Lila pulls herself into middle-class comfort at sixteen by marrying an ambitious grocer. The second book picks up at this point.
The novel is a subversive exposé of the way patriarchy damages both men and women. Lenú, the self-deprecating outsider, navigates between “school” Italian and rough neighborhood dialect. She envies Lila’s marriage as the solution to material hardship, though she has witnessed the casual wedding day betrayal of Lila’s trust by the groom, Stephano. When Lila returns from her honeymoon, she avoids Lenú to hide signs of abuse. “We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.” Sometimes female in-laws function as accomplices to enforcement. Yet both Lila and Lenú maintain enduring ties with male friends from the neighborhood who illustrate the capacity for deep love as a counterpoint to violence.
Lila has followed along with Lenú’s studies, mastering Greek and Latin, using her autodidactic intuitions to help her friend excel. As a married woman, she takes up this role again: “She seemed not to realize that her capacity to learn effortlessly remained intact. But I knew. I saw for example, that chemistry, so boring for me, provoked in her that narrow look, and her few observations awakened me from my apathy, excited me.” Lila belongs with Lenú’s mentors, all women: the schoolteacher who lends books, the professor who pushes her to leave for University up north. But Lila, feeling left behind can be tellingly dismissive even as she is a covert marital renegade:
She closed the book abruptly. . . . “Because I’ve had it, it’s always the same story: inside something small there’s something even smaller that wants to leap out, and outside something large there’s always something larger that wants to keep it prisoner. I’m going to cook.”
Tensions reach a climax in a competition over Nino Sarratore, Lenú’s long-time crush, who escapes the neighborhood. He becomes the star intellectual at school and Lenú places him on a pedestal. We glimpse him showing off verbal muscles. At a professor’s social gathering another young man asserts that only blood and violence will change the world. “Nino responded calmly: Planning is an indispensable tool. The talk was tense, Professor Galiani kept the boys at bay. How much they knew, they were masters of the earth.” Lila, who has come along to this gathering, feels ignored and out of place. She excoriates Lenú: “You, too, want to be a puppet from the neighborhood . . . to leave us alone in our own shit . . . while all of you go cococrico, cococrico, hunger, war, working class, peace.”
In an ironic twist, Lila reveals how shallow Nino’s idealistic rhetoric is. The affair blows up the security she has chosen and creates a huge rift with Lenú. But she accepts the consequences of her imploding choice and does what she has to do to survive.
Ferrante shows us deeper layers of the friendship with the complexity of light in a prism. Ambivalent, avoiding work on her thesis, Lenú discovers her writer’s voice: “One morning I bought a graph paper notebook and began to write in the third person. . . . Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to wield the world around her, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch . . .”
Then she rediscovers a fairytale Lila wrote when they were schoolgirls. “Her child’s book had put down roots in my mind and had, in the course of years, produced another book, different, adult, mine, and yet inseparable from hers, from the fantasies that we had elaborated together in the courtyard of our games.”
Lenú is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Lila is a portrait of the thwarted creative soul. In the final volume, what new layers will Elena Ferrante reveal in the adult phase of this friendship? She has created so much more than just a coming-of-age story; it is an epic that creates with intimate, small strokes a broad panorama of social displacement.