It’s been a long time since I gulped a book in long, satisfying swallows. But that was my sensation reading the second volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.
The Story of a New Name picks up right where we left off with the two protagonists; Lina has married Stephano Carracci and discovered, on her wedding day, that he has betrayed her, so she has fallen out of love (or more accurately, fallen out of childish fantasy) with him and entered a cold war before the honeymoon is even over. Elena (Lena) continues to wrestle with questions of self-worth and legitimacy in her high school studies. She begins to date and explore sex with one boy, but loves the antisocial, brilliant Nino Sarratore from a distance.
It’s hard to remember that Lina and Lena are still girls of sixteen when the book begins. The titular new name is Lina’s — now she is adressed everywhere as Signora Carracci and it sounds much more adult than she is (Elena gets a new name, or title, too, at the end of the book). As a married “woman,” she is expected to care for her husband and help his business ventures until she begins producing babies. She is grown-up in the eyes of the neighborhood and her outwardly her path is set. Of course, the tempestuous, irreverent Lina will choose her own path. Lena chooses hers as well, by finishing high school and leaving the neighborhood to go to college in another city.
While book 1 seemed like a coming-of-age story, it’s not until book 2 that these girls, and the main themes, burst into full bloom. And it makes sense — book 1 was about childhood bonds. Lina and Lena’s personalities are distinguished, and the violent poverty and petty squabbles of their neighborhood framed, but they and their world views are necessarily immature and limited by their ages. In book 2, the characters ripen with maturity, even if they are only teenagers playing with adult behaviors and emotions, as teenagers do. It is significant, I think, that Lina doesn’t manage to get pregnant for much of the book because she is really just a young girl (not that it can’t happen, of course), unready for marriage, let alone motherhood.
I don’t want to give too much away about the plot in book 2, because I enjoyed its unfolding. The plot does move along, but there are long sections in which the same thing seems to happen — and yet it doesn’t. So I was amazed just how interested I remained throughout the book. In one rather long section, Lina and Lena go to the seaside town of Ischia for a summer holiday to “take a sea cure” of sorts (Lina’s doctor thinks it will help her get pregnant). In chapter after chapter, day after summer day, Lina and Elena wake up and head to the beach to meet up with some boys to swim, eat ice cream, talk, and so forth. Reading, you feel like you are going through the holiday with them. And through this summer play, summer romance, summer vacation, they finally seem like the teenagers they are. That is, until Lina’s husband shows up on the weekends.
One theme that Ferrante explores over and over is the idea of defining ourselves by others, or by our relationships. Even when Lina and Lena are estranged (and it happens for significant periods throughout their lives), they are shaped by their connection and the knowledge the other woman has of her and vice versa. Whether they are being jealous of the other, or competitive, nurturing, or protective, who they are is only because of who they are together. This theme also applies to family to some degree; Lena often talks about the feeling of her mother coming through or out of her. It sounds vague, but I don’t see another way to put it. It is the same with the neighborhood. When Lena moves away to college and really, truly shrugs off most of her lower class stigmas like dialect, homemade clothes, uneducated suitors, and so forth, Lina is still part of her. At one point Lena erupts furiously at someone who has crossed her, channeling Lina, in an explosion of brutal dialect and violent emotion that is completely out of place in her new world and character (but not Lina’s). Interestingly, this moment gives her little regret, but more an odd feeling of comfort.
Overall, I love how richly Ferrante has imagined these young women and am so looking forward to seeing how these themes develop. I mentioned in my last post about how the book reminded me of a Shakespearean drama. I don’t dismiss this comparison, but now I think the stories are Shakespearean without the Englishness. The other night I was watching The Godfather movies, and closely watching the violent entrepreneurism of the young Vito Corleone or Michael courting and marrying Appolonia while in exile in poor but proud Sicily. I see similar family relationships, gender roles, and ideas of honor, success, and obligation in Ferrante’s books and imagine there is a deep cultural well that these impressions come from that I only understand in a popular culture way.
I am taking a short break to read elsewhere for a spell, but I am certain that this is my year in Naples.