Thursday 10 October 2013

'The Story of a New Name' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

After reading the wonderful My Brilliant Friend a few months back, I was itching to get stuck into the sequel to Elena Ferante's novel of a Neapolitan childhood.  Luckily for me, Europa Editions have just published it - and it's another superb read.  A note of warning before we begin though - in reviewing the second book, I will (inevitably) be revealing some plot details from the first one.  *Please proceed with caution* ;)

The Story of a New Name (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of the publisher) picks up where we left off, with the cliffhanger at Lila's wedding.  Her decision to wed to escape poverty appears misguided from the very start, with her husband having seemingly betrayed her to the people she hates most in the world.  As Lenù looks on (slightly distracted by the handsome figure of Nino Sarratore), she begins to feel that for once Lila has overplayed her hand...

Soon enough though, it is Lenù herself that starts to feel lost.  As Lila slowly adapts to life as a married woman, her friend struggles with her studies, always doubting her ability to truly fit in with the people around her.  Having deliberately distanced herself from her family and friends, Lenù now finds herself caught in a no-(wo)man's land, stranded between two social spheres, neither of which she really belongs to.

Again, the old competitiveness and jealousy raises its head, and Lenù tries to console herself that she is, at least, happier than Lila.  The new Signora Carracci, however, is a woman both enigmatic and fearless, and no matter what life throws at her, she is likely to get what she wants in the end.  Which is when Nino enters the story once more...

From the paragraphs above, you might be forgiven for thinking that I've decided to start reading romance fiction, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Taking up the themes of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name is a twisting, caustic account of the life of women in mid-twentieth-century Naples, a feminist look at the struggles women faced in escaping from the poverty trap and a lifetime of subservience to men.

The first part of the book largely takes place in the neighbourhood, an oppressive, cramped world in itself, where a handful of families rule the roost, lending money and cheating customers at the grocery scales.  While Lila has ostensibly married into this 'ruling' class, she is a woman, with no real rights, and like all wives who hesitate to accept this 'truth', she will suffer for her obstinacy.  Lenù, our eyes and ears, is frightened by a sudden realisation of what happens to women when they become wives and mothers:
"That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood.  They were nervous, they were acquiescent.  They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harrassed them.  Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up.  And, good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me."
p.102 (Europa Editions, 2013)
Lila is now one of these women, and her introduction to married life is brutal and upsetting.  It does not make for pleasant reading.

The new name of the book reflects Lila's new state as a married woman - Lila (or Lina) Cerullo has become Signora Carracci, and this change of name does bring some advantages.   She gains financially, moving into a large, modern apartment, and she never needs to worry about money, taking freely from the tills of her husband's businesses.  She has also risen in the world in terms of status, walking around the streets of the neighbourhood like a Neapolitan Jackie Onassis.  But at what cost?  Her freedom, her intellectual development and her self-respect...

The widening gulf between Lenù and Lila reflects the general division in the novel between the literate, intellectual characters and the rest of the neighbourhood.  Those wanting to further their minds are able to retreat to a place in their heads where their partners, friends or enemies are unable to reach them, and Lenù sees a need to keep away from her oldest friend, fearing that Lila's problems will drag her back down into the morass of the neighbourhood...

Part of the magic of Ferrante's work though is the way that the two women's lives are so inextricably entwined that there is never a chance of a complete break:
"But Lila knew how to draw me in.  And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that's enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself." (p.274)
Every time Lenù believes that their friendship is finally over, she can't resist going back to see her friend, looking for something she could never really explain - praise, redemption, a feeling of superiority?

Whatever it is, she's unlikely to leave satisfied - no matter how successful Lenù becomes, there's something about Lila, something innate, which allows her to effortlessly surpass her friend, to always be two steps ahead.  It's a tortured relationship at times:
"When I saw Lila again, I realized immediately that she felt bad and tended to make me feel bad, too.  We spent a morning at her house in an atmosphere that seemed to be playful.  In fact she insisted, with growing spitefulness, that I try on all her clothes, even thought they didn't fit me.  The game became torture." (p.97)
Ah, friends...

A further strong point of Ferrante's writing is her wonderful characterisation.  The two main women are strongly depicted, and can be very attractive, but there is no black and white here.  Lila is whimsical, changing her mind more often than is good for her (and the people around her), but she can also be perversely stubborn, often when giving in a little might actually benefit her.

Lenù, despite being our conduit into Ferrante's world, is a coldly honest portrayal of a character the reader might be tempted to associate with.  Egotistical, immature and often self-serving, she is also somehow easily swayed and unable to keep her nose out of matters that don't concern her, even if she kids herself that she wants no part of life in the neighbourhood.  These flaws though, far from marring the two women, make them real, complete, people we can truly sympathise with.

Ferrante's novel reflects another time, another world, one in which, of the two paths the friends choose, Lila's housewife role seems the most likely route to success.  Sadly though, that's not really the case.  Even in twenty-first-century Australia, true equality is very far from being a reality...

After our recent Federal election, won comfortably by the conservative opposition, the new Prime Minister (a deeply religious and conservative politician) announced his new cabinet.  Of the eighteen ministers announced, only one was a woman, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (Abbott himself decided to take on the women's affairs portfolio...).  A cartoon in the newspaper the next day had a worried-looking colleague asking Abbott if having one woman in the cabinet was a problem.  The cartoon PM replied by saying that it would all be good - she'd be overseas most of the time anyway...  Just a joke, right?  I'm not convinced...

In a climate like this, books like Ferrante's are a reminder of how far we've come, but also of how far we've yet to go - and it's another great read.  So, can I have the final book in the trilogy now, please? ;)