Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Beginning their lives as women, two friends compete

In Part Two of the Neapolitan novels, beautiful brilliant unstable Lila is now queen of the old neighborhood, with an affluent handsome husband, and successful grocery and shoe store she only makes more successful with her charm and intelligence. Elena, chubby with thick glasses and bad skin, trudges along with her studies and her hopeless crush on dashing Nino Sarratorre. Little by little, however, as Elena starts to excel in the alien educated world outside the claustrophobic violence of the neighborhood she takes charge of her own destiny, avoiding entanglements with men while Lila finds herself trapped inside a social and sexual prison. By the end of this book, their roles are reversed, Lila on the run, suffering at the most menial of jobs, and Elena a celebrated young novelist.

This was so good! Full of life and longing. Although there’s a little bit of false marketing going on, as this is not really Book Two of a series of linked novels, but rather this is the second section of a much longer, much more ambitious novel, like War and Peace or Middlemarch – an epic that not only examines the petty vicissitudes of the two main characters’ love life, but also takes on the modern history of Italy, the education of the masses, feminism and the rise of technology.

Now that the elaborate setup of Book One is out of the way, the personal story, that is, the story of the two women’s friendship, can really get going. In the first book, the plotting was harder to discern but in this volume the magnificent architecture comes into view. The many many supporting characters also serve as plot devices, that is, they are always bringing some gossipy tidbit or party invitation to Elena in order to move the story along. The book is about how two women struggle with their relationship, also about how they wake up to the consciousness of how men oppress them. And what is the meaning of the epigraph from Faust at the beginning of the first book? Which one, Lila or Elena, is the devil here? And also what is the meaning of the prologue to the first book, when Elena sits down to the computer, saying, you’re not going to win this time. What are these books about? Revenge?

Elena literally is learning a new language – Italian versus the dialect, and on her journey, she is helped by women and hindered (is that the right word) by men – or definitely not helped by men. At every critical juncture older women help her, the most critical help given by an anonymous professor who tells her about the scholarship to the free university in Pisa. The book is female-centric. The men are merely appurtenances or the bars of the cage.

The writing (including the translation) is consistently excellent. I went back and reread the opening of book one which was from the point of view of a four year old child. Excellently done. On one hand, the writing is highly realistic, on the other, I loved the effective use of imagery - Elena dropping of Lila’s box of letters in the Arno to open this book; Lila the burning of her Blue Fairy story to close the book. I love that the two girls love Little Women.

Round One: Lila with the wedding feast; Round Two: Elena with the book deal. Although the final scene of this book, where Elena has “won,” and Lila stands there stinking of offal in the refrigerator of the horrific sausage making factory, and then says, there’s this new kind of calculator and a flow chart, made me think that Elena has a kind of a Wile E. Coyote thing going on with Lila.

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