Back in December I read ‘My Brilliant Friend’, the first in the series of Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. It has taken me 6 months to get around to reading book 2. Not because I didn’t want to, or I thought it would be a chore. Exactly opposite actually. From my previous experience with Ferrante I knew when I started I wouldn’t want to stop. I also knew a certain amount of emotional investment would be required. So you see, the time to read it had to be just right. As it happens that right time was a recent holiday.
The novel begins with the same rawness and ferocity I remember so well from My Brilliant Friend. Lila is now married. Unsurprisingly her marriage is tempestuous and volatile. She is also establishing herself in her family business, causing havoc along the way. Meanwhile, Elena continues to make her way at school whilst tentatively discovering a world beyond the neighbourhood.
Lila and Elena’s friendship is a complex and difficult thing. They are equally needy, feed off each other and excite one another intellectually and creatively. Elena is clearly beguiled with Lila and on occasion appears almost bewitched.
“We spent the last days of September shut up in the shop, the two of us and three workman. They were magnificent hours of play, of invention, of freedom, such as we hadn’t experienced together perhaps since childhood. Lila drew me into her frenzy…..Lila had always been good with lines and colours, but here she did something more, though I wouldn’t have been able to say what it was: hour after hour it engulfed me”
Elena is horribly insecure and can see nothing but her own inadequacies in comparison to Lila to whom she has always felt second best. It is this portrayal of the complexity of the female bond which is equally brilliant and unsettling.
“I was afraid that whatever she wore her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager for a fragment of it……I was afraid that if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotised by her intelligence”
I hesitate to call their relationship co-dependent, despite some of the evidence pointing in that direction. Lila’s cruelty towards Elena doesn’t disguise the need she has for her, whereas Elena flourishes in a way Lila doesn’t when they are apart. There is a wonderful moment when Elena experiences an awakening and realises she is worth something, she does have something to say and she does fit in. I wanted to applaud.
“Suddenly I felt that the state of suspension that had begun the day of her wedding was over. I knew how to be with these people, I felt more at ease than I did with my friends in the neighbourhood. The only anxiety was what Lila was provoking now by her withdrawal, by remaining on the margins.”
My Brilliant Friend was an introduction the gritty world of the neighbourhood, to Lila and Elena and their friendship. In The Story of a New Name, this is established and as reader I felt more able to cope with this world and inhabit it. It has left me wanting more.
Image Changing pages