"The Story of a New Name" is the second book in Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy. You can find a review of the first book, "My Brilliant Friend" in an earlier posting. I can only repeat all I said about Elena Ferrante's first brilliant book. All the accolades can again apply to this novel.
The story picks up where the first book ends. The setting is now in the 1960s and covers the years when Elena and Lila, the two main characters, are now aged 16 until 22. The book again opens in Naples, and Elena Greco is preparing to go to university in Pisa, while Lila Cerullo is stuck in a disastrous marriage. Before Elena parts for Pisa, where she has been accepted at the prestigious Scuola Normale, the girls spend a summer together on the Island of Ischia. Most of the story centers on what happens to both girls in this disastrous summer. Nino Sarratore, Elena's crush in the first novel, plays a large role in the lives of both girls during their holiday.
As Elena's fortunes rise and Lila's fall, the girls remain connected by Elena's failure to break loose from the dominance that Lila has always had over her. Language and dialect play a large part in the novels of this series. As Elena becomes more educated, she begins to use the classic Italian of the north, while Lila remains in Naples, where the characters speak in a local Neapolitan dialect filled with the coarseness and brutality of the life they are living. Though Elena is unable to break from Lila, she also has used her as a spur to better herself and move away from the class she was born into. The contrast between her and those she grew up with is sharper than ever on her infrequent visits to home. In Pisa Elena meets and becomes engaged to an intellectual classmate, the son of a famous socialist professor. She writes a novel that is a huge success, yet when she returns to Naples, she finds no one there has read it or seemingly cares about it. She has no part in her old world.
What both the reader and Elena knows is that she, Elena, has a strong interior life that we have privy to, but she has little exterior life that she can call her own. Almost all she has accomplished, she had done under the influence of Lila, including her writing. The opinions Elena holds are taken from cues of those around her, whether in Naples or in the intellectual community in Pisa. She comes to recognize that she does not think for herself. She is as much a prisoner as Lila is in her failed marriage to an abusive husband.
Again Ferrante writes brilliantly. I felt like I was reading an autobiographical novel. The characters are all alive. There is not a fake amongst them. They are as real as real can be. I put the book aside when I was reading of the summer on Ischia. It seemed those languid days went on and on, and I was waiting for something dreadful to happen. I think I knew what was going to happen, but it was taking a while to get there. About half way through the book, things came to a head, and I found I could not put the book down. I began to read non-stop and finished the second half of the book in a few days.
I highly recommend this book to all readers, but it should not be read before reading the first book in the series.