That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into shapelessness is what most frightened Lila in the course of her life. The loss of those boundaries in her brother, whom she loved more than anyone in her family, had frightened her, and the disintegration of Stefano in the passage from fiance to husband terrified her. I learned only from her notebooks how much her wedding night had scarred her and how she feared the potential distortion of her husband’s body, his disfigurement by the internal impulses of desire and rage or on the contrary, of subtle plans, base acts. Especially at night she was afraid of waking up and finding him formless in the bed, transformed into excrescences that burst out because of too much fluid, the flesh melted and dripping,, and with it everything around, the furniture, the entire apartment and she herself, his wife, broken,, sucked into that stream polluted by living matter.
Late in The Story of a New Name the narrator, young Elena, finds out what happened to her childhood friend Lila on Lila’s wedding night. The reader knows from the opening chapters of the novel. Lila’s wedding night is one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve read. Her new husband, Stefano, whom she loves and who was basically good to her throughout the course of the first novel in the Neapolitan series, this is the second of four, rapes Lila on the first night of their honeymoon leaving her so bruised that she remains in hiding for several days ashamed to be seen. The reader can’t help but wonder if this the reason why the standard honeymoon story features a couple who don’t come out of their room for days on end.
The scene is violent, devastating for both Lila and the reader. It’s also, sadly, probably all too common both in the 1960’s and today. In 1960’s Naples, Lila has no recourse, no one to turn to neither authorities nor family members who will support her. She knows how many women in her neighborhood are beaten by their husbands and fathers. She immediately realizes that marrying Stefano was a mistake she has no way to escape. She must find a way to live with the man who betrayed her, some way to win back some degree of power.
Elena Ferrante pulled no punches in My Brilliant Friend so expect none to be pulled here. The story of Lila and her strange friendship with Elena, the novel’s narrator, continues through the first years of Lila’s marriage, her affair, her husbands affair, the birth of her child and the repercussions of that child’s parentage. Elena, meanwhile, graduates from high school and begins attending university. Her own romantic life continues to disappoint her while she ties to figure out just where she can fit in the world around her.
The two travel together to the seaside one summer where Elena hopes to meet the classmate she is secretly in love with. When they finally meet, the boy becomes immediately attracted to Lila who soon begins an affair with him. Elena has no one to confide in, which basically sums up their relationship and Elena’s on-going struggle through The Story of a New Name. She is nearly alone in the world in spite of having a family and a circle of friends around her.
This should be frustrating, annoying, something that would keep me from reading. But again I had trouble putting Ms. Ferrante’s book down. Even the sub-plot about Lila’s brothers and their attempt to start a shoe factory kept me turning the pages. I’ve never cared about shoes or factories for that matter, but I’m hooked here. I really want to know what happens to the factory in the third book.
And I really want to know what happens with Lila and Elena. Somehow, Ms. Ferrante makes her story, as long as it is, a page turner even when nothing appears to be happening. That she provides a jaw-dropping twist in the novel’s final two words is a triumph of plotting. I stand in salute, Ms. Ferrante. Even Henry James needed an entire sentence to turn his story on its head, but you did it in two words.
Aside from the enjoyment the plot and the writing bring me, The Neapolitan Novels have been an education in Italian life. The neighborhood politics, the way so few people ever leave the neighborhood in any meaningful way, that Elena has to learn Italian in order to leave Naples for Pisa where she attends university, the family dynamics, not to mention the details about running a shoe business are just part of what the non-Italian reader learns from Ms. Ferrante’s books. It’s almost an exercise in world building like you’d find in a fantasy series–it’s so thoroughly done and so alien to a 21st century American reader.
I loved it. As much as, maybe more than, I did the first one.
Bring on book three.