Last year, I finally joined the Elena Ferrante fan club. I thought ‘My Brilliant Friend’ completely lived up to its name, and I knew its sequel would have to be included in my 2016 reading. Then, as tends to happen, I started to doubt myself. Would I enjoy ‘The Story of a New Name’ as much as its predecessor? Would my reading pleasure be diminished by the fact that, as the months moved on, I was forgetting the numerous character names that took me so long to get to grips with in the first volume?
I needn’t have worried; as always, Ferrante was one step ahead of me. Not only was the writing so compelling that fears of being let down were immediately forgotten, but ‘The Story of a New Name’ politely assumes you have left a gap since finishing ‘My Brilliant Friend.’ At the start of this second book, Lenù, our narrator, receives a pile of notebooks from the infinitely attractive and enigmatic Lila. Through summarising their contents, Lenù reminds us of all of the key events in the friendship so far. Also, because these things are always complex, we get hints that Lila’s version is somehow better, more engaging, more powerful, more brilliant than Lenù’s telling. The lives, the relationships and the central web of competition and companionship that made ‘Our Brilliant Friend’ so wonderful were all back and I felt as if I had never left the enthralling world of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
For the rest of the story, it’s business as usual. The endemic abuse within the friends’ tight-knit community touches them more closely than ever as they grow up from childish observers to women and wives. Once again, it is Lila who appears to suffer the most, and yet who remains an aspirational figure, effortlessly talented and captivating. Meanwhile, under the surface we’re given a contrasting narrative, one which deals with Lenù’s own attempts to forge a life for herself and escape into the middle-class milieu forever barred to her uneducated childhood friends.
In some ways, ‘The Story of a New Name’ was a comforting read; it gave me everything I was hoping for from an Elena Ferrante novel. A part of this is that the novel contained reassuringly surprising twists and revelations. Consistently powerful and unexpected, I’m so pleased to be only half way through Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy – with ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ to look forward to in 2017!