The second book of Elena Ferrante's four Neapolitan novels (which should be read in order) takes up as Lina (Elena's brilliant friend) marries the apparently mild-mannered Stefano. Lina learns that he must do as the powerful hated Solara brothers request to be successful in business. This infuriates her so much that she rejects Stefano and he beats her the first night of their honeymoon. Thus begins the next installment of the lives of the two friends Elena and Lila as they struggle in their very different ways to escape their impoverished neighborhood (the first book is My Brilliant Friend, my thoughts here).
Lina, though she only completed elementary school, is brilliant at whatever she tries; shoe design, learning Greek on her own, creating an artful design for an upscale store, running a grocery store, running the shoe store. Elena views herself as plodding along, but she succeeds at that, finishing high school and college without any family support, financial or otherwise. Elena denies her continuing love for Nino, another good student from the neighborhood and keeps it secret from Lina. During a vacation on the island Ischia contrived by Elena to see Nino, Lina and Nino fall in love and Elena finds herself a party to the deception of Lina's husband.
At this point the disgusted Elena withdraws from Lina and neighborhood life and is immersed in her new life at college in Pisa. The stories she tells of the feuds, business rivals, marital deceptions, and beatings are recounted based on various sources she had. One source was the collection of ten notebooks Lina had written about her life that she sent off with Lina to Pisa with a promise that Elena would not read them (she broke that promise on the train to Pisa).
After she finishes college and is at loose ends, Elena visits Lina and her son Rino in an even more squalid neighborhood than their own where she was taken by the saintly Enzo who waits for her to love him. Around this time Elena learns that unbeknownst to her a short manuscript she wrote to exorcize the demons during the time she was nearly finished with school has been sent to a publisher and is to be published. So, Elena has an educated boyfriend and a book out as Lina's fortunes are at a low point. The book ends with Nino turning up at Elena's first book reading.
Elena Ferrante is the pen name of the author whose identity remains secret.Though how much of this is the story of about herself and her friend is an open question, it feels like a blazingly honest appraisal of their lives and motivations. Elena often recognizes her jealousy of Lina and Lina's manipulations of others, including Elena.
The narrative that Elena recounts of the nine families of the neighborhood of her youth is riveting and brings to mind Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, Europa Editions, 2013, 471 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.