Elena Ferrante: Storia del nuovo cognome (The Story of a New Name)
The second book in this series of four books starts off exactly where the previous one ended. We left Lila, the brilliant friend of the first book, at her wedding. She had given her husband-to-be, Stefano, the pair of shoes that she had designed and that she and her brother, Rino, had made and was looking forward to seeing him in them. Imagine her horror when she saw the hated Marcello Solara wearing them. That is where the first book ended. The new book starts, not surprisingly, with Lila’s reaction. She is furious and makes sure that everyone knows. Stefano, eventually, gives a logical explanation for this but she is unwilling to accept it, even though, in her heart of hearts, she knows that he is being reasonable. She now tells herself that marriage is pointless and that sex with Stefano is pointless. She is determined to make him pay and that starts by denying him sex on their wedding night. As a standard Italian man, though, previously, a seemingly relatively decent man, he beats her and rapes her. The bruises are clearly visible and those who see her are divided between those that think he was right and she deserved it (the majority, and not just men) and those that think he was wrong (primarily Elena).
Stefano is an ambitious business man and he starts two businesses – a new grocery shop and a shoe shop selling shoes designed by Lila and her brother, and partially financed by the Solaras. Much of the early part of the book concerns the conflicts both between Stefano and his family and the Solaras (who seem to have Camorra connections), as well as conflicts within the family over who should manage what shop. Lila is to manage the new grocery shop and she cleverly engineers her mother-in-law and sister-in-law out of the day-to-day running of the old grocery shop. Though she seems to go along with Stefano, despite his behaviour, she does what any sensible wife would do in that situation, she spends his money.
Meanwhile, Elena is struggling with her schooling and struggling with her romantic relationships, with both of the men moving away. Indeed, she accepts that Lila is better with men but she also fears the violence of men. She perseveres in her schooling and her strong feelings (not reciprocated) for Nino Salvatore. But these books are more about Lila and even though the two friends have their falling-outs, they always come back together and, during their falling-outs, Elena picks up news of Lila from friends and family.
Lila, as we have learned from the beginning of the first book, is headstrong and independent and, though she initially more or less settles down to marriage, it is very clear that this is not going to last. She is going to do what she wants and, if that involves an extramarital affair, then she is going to have an extramarital affair. During the second part of the book, we follow her affair, as well as the romantic liaisons of other and the ongoing conflicts, fights and occasional deaths. Meanwhile Elena goes to Pisa to study, but she has her own issues to deal with, though well away from Lila and her own family. Indeed, conflict and change remain the theme of this book. When facing her oral exams at university, the following conversation takes place:
“Do you really think that nothing is fated to last, not even poetry?”
“That’s what Leopardi thinks.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think that beauty is a sham.”
It is a cynical and depressing point of view, particularly as it comes from the person who may the least cynical of the major characters in this book but one that reflects the reality of the situation that Elena and others face in Naples at that period. Violence, sexual abuse, misogyny and financial worries are the continual background and when there is discussion among the main characters of the world beyond, it is a generally negative view of the world that we see.
As with the other books in this series, this book received considerable acclaim in Italy and elsewhere. If you like autobiographical fiction, there is no doubt that Ferrante keeps a good story going. Some might say that it is really a soap opera of a group of dysfunctional families, a well-written and gripping soap opera but, nonetheless, a soap opera.
First published by E/O, Rome in 2012
First English translation by Europa in 2013
Translated by Ann Goldstein