‘It seemed to me the just conclusion to that day. If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately’.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Pg.19
Carrying on almost seamlessly from where My Brilliant Friend left off, Elena Ferrante dazzles again with the second instalment of her Neapolitan series. As soon as I open the book, I am catapulted back to 1960s Naples as it is brought teeming to life with characters that are so real and relatable, so full of contradictory emotions, so human and so flawed. Elena is still torn between trying to keep up with her friend whilst at the same time trying to establish a future that is irreconcilably different. Lila is hurtling towards the inevitable failure of her marriage, but just how serious and damaging this will be, only time will tell.
After a brief relapse in her studies, Elena works defiantly hard to make up for the lost time she has spent doubting her abilities and her future. In order to do this, she has to further severe ties with her childhood friends, most of whom have followed the paths of their parents due to economic necessity. Not that Elena’s family are well-off at all. She relies on secondhand copies of school texts from her primary school teacher – Maestra Oliviero, as soon as school breaks up for the holidays she is required to find a full-time job, and she also has to receive top grades in order to gain scholarships to carry on studying and to justify these pursuits to her parents. With all of these added stresses, Elena can no longer keep up the emotional strength it takes to sustain a close relationship with Lila.
Meanwhile, Lila is in an increasingly volatile marriage with the successful store-owner, Stefano. However, the reason for his wealth is down to illicit business ties with the most feared and repulsive family in their small, Neapolitan town – the Solaras. It is this revelation, on Lila’s wedding day, that seals the fate of this young couple. Lila cannot stand the Solaras and isn’t afraid of turning this disgust towards her husband, no matter what the consequences may be.
‘[…] almost against his will, the tone of Stafano’s voice rose: “Now you’re really pissing me off, Lina”.
He repeated that remark two or three times, each time louder, as if to assimilate fully an order that was coming to him from very far away, perhaps even from before he was born. The order was: be a man, Ste’; either you subdue her now or you’ll never subdue her; your wife has to learn right away that she is the female and you’re the male and therefore she has to obey’.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Pg.40-1
It seems that, although Elena and Lila’s situations may appear very different on the surface, they are both learning to traverse very male-dominated institutions – that of marriage and scholarly education. They each have their own battles to fight as they refuse to be silenced and dominated by their male counterparts. There is definitely a stronger awareness from the protagonist’s point-of-view of the social, cultural and political events that are occurring throughout Italy, Europe and the wider-world during the 1960s. Although Elena is completely aware of her ignorance in the face of these events, she notices the effects they have on the people around her. She notices the increase in communist sympathies and the worker and student struggles, yet she also notices her own distance to these events as they don’t directly impact on her life, her studies. She struggles to balance her scholarly knowledge with world knowledge and at the same time appears to have only a superficial interest in both. It is only her passion to succeed, to keep up with Lila’s impression and vision of her and to keep up with the academic achievements of her childhood crush, Nino Sarratore, that pushes her to excel. Yet it is Nino’s inherited privilege as a white, middle-class male that makes him so at home in an educational environment in a way that is completely unattainable for Elena. Despite eventually outshining Nino, she struggles to affiliate her successes with her own hard work and talent, instead choosing to dwell on what she sees as her own flaws.
‘I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits. I didn’t possess that emotional power that had driven Lila to do all she could to enjoy that day and that night. I stayed behind, waiting. She, on the other hand, seized things, truly wanted them, was passionate about them, played for all or nothing, and wasn’t afraid of contempt, mockery, spitting, beatings’.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Pg.288-9
Elena’s unadulterated emotions are so relatable, I think, to a lot of people. Those feelings of not living fully in the present, of worrying over the past or anxiously awaiting the future, of wondering if you have made the right decisions and thinking too much of the consequences are all too familiar. I think each and every one of us would love to be able to feel truly present in our own lives every now and again. We all need a little bit of Lila in us to push our boundaries, even break them down altogether. I can see why Elena is so attracted to her, unable to shake her presence. She is a force of nature that reveals people in their true guises. Though, both of these characters are fascinating in their own way and each time I finish these books they remain in my thoughts as if they were real people with real lives.