Yes, Elena Ferrante’s Naples trilogy is a saga of the long and fiery friendship between two women—Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo—it’s what all the blurbs and headlines say. But behind that narrative is another story, a story of how two intellectually gifted women must struggle to grow into full, independent beings against odds stacked vertiginously high against them. Because no matter how smart, how crafty, how beautiful Elena and Lila might be—and they are all those—the awful truth in these books is Number One, the world was not created for women, and Number Two, it was certainly not created for women like Elena and Lila, born and raised in a poor and insular Neapolitan neighborhood. No matter how hard they try, and try they do, each in her own way, there are more reasons than not for them to stay trapped in poverty, mediocrity, vulgarity, and abuse.
As little six-year-olds, in My Brilliant Friend, Volume 1, they’re already well aware of the scarcities in their lives. They dream of writing a book together that will someday make them rich. As older girls, when one of them is permitted to attend middle school (Elena) and the other not, they’re forced to confront head-on other kinds of poverty: poverty of mind, poverty of spirit. Indeed, their parents know and care so little about the world beyond the stradone, the slum avenue on which they live—partly because they’re benighted, partly because they’re always working—that they never even take their children to downtown Naples or to the beach. Imagine: To live in Naples and not know it faces the sea! (The one time that Elena’s father takes her downtown it’s to figure out how she should take public transportation to middle school.) Abuse of women in their world is taken for granted, it’s an essential ingredient in male and female relationships and both girls have watched their fathers slap their mothers around. Elena wisely appreciates that to witness those slaps and beatings constitutes a sort of training, a sort of forerunner to her own future entanglements and she proceeds cautiously. Caution is no part of Lila’s personality, however, and when on her wedding day she learns that the men in her life—her new husband, her brother and father—have sold her shoe designs without her consent, she protests vigorously, the result being that her husband beats and rapes her on the first night of their honeymoon. So begins Story of a New Name, Volume 2.
The pace of the second volume is faster than that of the first, and there are many more incidents, dramatic highs and lows, and shifts between scenes and the wide range of characters. Whereas I likened the characterizations and events of the first volume to verismo opera in my first blog post on the trilogy, I must confess I found the second volume to be more like a soap opera, albeit an exceptionally good one. I found it difficult to keep track of all the twists and turns of events and of secondary characters. And since for the most part we’re offered descriptions of the many secondary characters only once, when we first meet them, I found it difficult to visualize them as they appeared in what was at times an almost dizzying array of incident. Characters and events seemed more fantastic in the first volume, perhaps because in that book the narrator looks back to childhood, where so much of life seems large and mysterious. In the second volume, in which the points of view are those of teenagers and young adults, the events are more quotidian.
The second volume opens, as did the first, with a highly provocative scene. On one of Elena’s visits home from Pisa, where she’s on scholarship at a prestigious university, Lila entrusts her with a metal box for safekeeping. Inside the metal box are eight notebooks that Lila wants no one to ever read—not her husband, not Elena. Elena guarantees their safety and privacy and then as soon as she gets back on the train to Pisa she opens the box and reads every one, awed and humbled by the power of Lila’s writing, her eloquence, her attention to detail and the seeming perfection of every sentence, written in the same longhand style they both learned as young girls. The notebooks begin with Lila’s life at the end of elementary school and they close with her growing despair as Stefano’s wife. They encompass her life on the stradone—descriptions of the people, buildings and streets, shops and gardens; her thoughts on the books she’s read and movies she’s seen; her interactions with Elena and everyone else; all her ups and downs. Elena says: “I studied them, and finished by committing to memory the paragraphs I liked, those that excited me, that hypnotized me, that humiliated me.” And so at the start of the second book we hear echoes of the first: What began as the desire to write a novel together at age six becomes realized as Elena draws upon Lila’s notebooks to write her own books—yes—the very same novels we are in the process of reading. (In yet another echo, the fictional Elena writes the novels of her eponymous, anonymous author. Or is it the other way around? Hmmm.) With Elena’s discovery of Lila’s writing, the fires of competition between them are once more stoked. For as Elena correctly intuits, whatever Elena succeeds in doing, Lila invariably shows her up, whether it’s Lila’s secret writing and learning of languages, or learning to swim stronger, farther, faster in just a few weeks, or stealing Nino, the love of Elena’s life. So, back in Pisa, having digested her friend’s work, Elena grows angry: “I couldn’t deal anymore with having Lila on my back, and inside me, especially now that I had gained such respect, now that I had finally gotten out of Naples.” She carries the notebooks to a bridge over the Arno and throws them in.
As small girls Elena and Lila know they’re the smartest students in their class if not in the entire school, and their bond is based on recognition of each other’s sharp native intelligence. As adolescents, even though they no longer go to school together, their bond grows in proportion to their shared hunger, a hunger to know and to have more than the meager amount assigned them by destiny, a hunger to reach to the top of the tree, to grasp the fruit they can barely see from where they stand on the ground below. Elena learns through the women who are her teachers, La Oliviera and La Galiana, that the world is immense, and that to have knowledge is to take control of one’s life. But there is so much to know! How does one put it all together? These are the questions Elena ponders repeatedly, middle school through university. Diligent scholar that she is, no sooner does she arrives at one plateau of knowledge and accomplishment than that she sees the next rise, and feels her sense of inadequacy renewed. As she slowly and painstakingly commands respect from her professors and fellow students, and earns her university scholarship, and her final degree, summa cum laude, her social orbits expand accordingly. She becomes a favorite of her professors, is befriended by their families, becomes friends with young men whom she considers oh so worldly and even takes one as a lover. As she ascends and sees more of how the world is constructed she understands with every step how dramatically underprepared she is for success of any real merit, and fears she will never catch up, and that somewhere along the line she will fall and never again rise. Happily, for Elena and reader both, she comes into her own by the end of the book with an over-the-top success that I will not reveal here.
Lila, Elena’s foil, is self-taught and quick on the draw. She’s like an animal trapped in a cage, biting and clawing her way out, game for any strategy that looks like it might work, ready to attack whoever gets in her way. Whereas Elena is plagued by self-doubt, always afraid of falling short in her studies, hesitant with men, Lila is full of herself, proud of her beauty and wit and sexual prowess. Elena says at several points that she draws strength from Lila’s brashness, that without Lila as a model she’d not only lack the courage to stand up for herself but wouldn’t even have a clue as to what to do, how to act. Yet on the other hand she at times considers Lila to be naïve, even vulgar. On the evening of the grand opening of the shoe store in downtown Naples in which Lila and her husband own a large share, Lila uncharacteristically suffers a bad case of jitters. She pulls Elena down a side street in order to talk and calm herself down. She reminds Elena of a scuffle they once witnessed on that very same street, years earlier, between the boys of their stradone against a group of well-dressed, middle-class kids. There were a few girls in that group, and one in particular. Lila asks Elena: “Do you remember that girl dressed in green, the one with the little hat?” Elena remembers at once and knows exactly what Lila’s thinking. Elena says, “It was all a question of money, Lila. Today everything’s different, you’re much prettier than that girl in the green dress.” But what Elena thinks and never says is that she’s lying, that there was something rotten in the inequality they experienced, and that she had come to understand what it was and Lila didn’t: It didn’t matter how much money Lila withdrew from the cash registers at Stefano’s shop or the shoe store, money wasn’t enough to hide their origins. That girl in the green dress was superior to them, and always would be, without so much as even wanting it.
Like a goddess of classical antiquity, Lila changes guise as she adopts various missions. When in the first volume her parents refuse to let her continue from elementary school to middle school, and she can no longer count on becoming rich by writing books, she sets her mind to designing shoes for her shoemaker father and brother to fabricate, while secretly reading, writing, and teaching herself Latin and Greek. When Stefano, the seemingly successful salumeria owner, courts her, she readily accepts him and the beautiful jewelry and clothes he showers upon her. When the second volume opens, as I’ve already noted, she’s enraged at the end of her wedding day when she learns she’s lost control of the shoe business she herself inspired, in a deal made by her father, brother, and husband with the mobster Solari brothers; soon after the horror of her honeymoon she allows herself to compromise, finding comfort in the luxuries of her new station as Stefano’s wife: a brand new apartment in the new section of the neighborhood, with a real bathtub (begone the large copper pot of her parents’ home); new kitchen appliances and furniture; a telephone and TV; and, parked right out front, a convertible. Having money for the first time in her life she spends it giddily, absent any restraints, so much so that her new mother-in-law complains to her son about how fast the money’s going out. When Elena sees Lila and Stefano driving around in their convertible she imagines them the Neapolitan version of John and Jackie Kennedy. There’s no doubt Lila thinks of herself the same way. But the large dark sunglasses Lila wears, as Elena soon learns, are meant to hide the bruises from Stefano’s beatings. When not long after her first wedding anniversary Lila falls for Nino, an old friend from elementary school, a brilliant student a few years older than Lila and Elena that Elena is secretly in love with, and has an affair with him practically under Stefano’s nose, she dives back into the books, wants to know everything Nino knows, wants to be just like him, wants to be considered a person of taste and intellect. At that same point Lila reassumes control of the shoe business, specifically the new shop in downtown Naples, where she adds her new literary sophistication to selling shoes. She creates a boutique complete with art and books, and divans where her customers—the wives and daughters of lawyers, doctors, and engineers—can gather for conversation and coffee, having fashioned herself a mid-century Miuccia Prada, so to speak. Just as I won’t reveal Elena’s closing victory I won’t reveal Lila’s last two transformations, other than to say that they lead in the direction opposite Elena’s: down and down. Nevertheless, despite all the metamorphoses Lila assumes, some things about her never change and those are the brand marks with which Elena connects with her friend, over and over again, the same way a hapless mortal might intuit the presence of a goddess: her ferocious intelligence, a wit like lightning with anger to match, and a way of narrowing her eyes into slits as she thinks through a problem and hatches a plan.
Whereas both women attempt to make sense of the world through reading and the written word—by the end of the second volume Lila is reading Ulysses while she sits with her infant son in a park—spoken language is the primary tool Elena uses to reshape her identity. She learns early, in middle school, that the ability to abandon dialect and speak standard Italian will be vital to her separating from her origins and assuming citizenship in a wider world. So she works hard at it, and takes great pride in her spoken Italian and in the fact that, until she enters university, her Neapolitan professors praise her eloquence. Once at the university, however, she’s told that her Italian is old-fashioned, somewhat flowery, and she’s teased for her Neapolitan accent. Humiliated, she embarks upon a campaign to rid herself of her accent and to learn a more sophisticated Italian. And she succeeds, so much so that when she returns to Naples to visit her family, her neighbors detect the loss of her accent and dub her La Pisana, the Pisan woman. One of the many poignant moments in the book occurs when, on that same visit home, her siblings attempt to speak with her not in dialect but in Italian. They are tentative with her, and self-correct their errors in embarrassment, and only slowly does she regain intimacy as their big sister.
Story of a New Name is a large, compelling story, so very rich in detail of thought and feeling—it touched a deep chord in me and as you may suspect I could go on for pages. But I won’t. I’m going to stop right here and let you go off to read the book. Allora, ciao—until next time, until Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Volume 3. And Buon Anno!