At the end of My Brilliant Friend, the first in the quartet of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Lila marries Stefano, a man from the neighborhood who is comfortably well off because of the grocery stores he owns. Lila is only 16 years old. The wedding is lavish in the tradition of Italian weddings.
Book 2, The Story of the New Name, then begins with Lila and Stefano’s honeymoon. They have gone to a resort along the Amalfi coast:
“They had reached Amalfi in the evening. Neither had even been to a hotel, and they were embarrassed and ill at ease. Stefano was especially intimidated by the vaguely mocking tones of the receptionist and, without meaning to, assumed a subservient attitude…”
Lila proves to be a most uncooperative and unwilling bride. Poor Stefano—he has married the most beautiful, intelligent and difficult young lady in the neighborhood!
“As soon as they were in the room, he tried to kiss her, and she recoiled. Gravely, she opened the suitcase, took out her nightgown and gave her husband his pajamas. That attention made him smile happily at her, and he tried again to grab her. But she shut herself in the bathroom.”
And so with this less than heavenly honeymoon Ms. Ferrante starts The Story of the New Name.
Rare it is that I found reading someone’s work with such intense pleasure. Rare has such a character been rendered in fiction as that of Lila. The last time such a character emerged from pages was when Scarlett O’Hara emerged in Gone with the Wind.
This sentence might be one of those seminal great sentences in all of literature: “…no one except me [Elena] seemed to realize that the marriage that had just been celebrated—and that would probably last until the death of the spouses, among the births of many children, many more grandchildren, joys and sorrows, silver and gold wedding anniversaries—that for Lila, no matter what her husband did in his attempt to be forgiven [Stefano has given the shoes she had designed to Marcella, a man she despised], that marriage was already over.”
The paths of the two friends, Lila and Elena, couldn’t be more unlikely: Lila is now, at a tender age, married, however unhappily, while Lena continues her studies, finishing high school with the highest marks and going off for further study in Pisa.
If asked why I have become so utterly captivated by Ms. Ferrante’s writing I’d reply it’s like secretly eating a hot fudge sundae. It’s intensely intimate and personal, and, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, amazing. I’m a stogy reader and if the sense of certain sentences elude me, I’ll go back and reread them until I understand their meaning. In doing so with Ms. Ferrante’s work I was frequently struck by the poetry, the profundity of it:
“Around Christmas vacation in 1966 I got a very bad flu. I telephoned a neighbor of my parents—finally even in the old neighborhood many people had a telephone—and told them I wasn’t coming home for vacation. Then I sank into desolate days of fever and coughing, while the college emptied, became silent. I ate nothing. I even had trouble drinking. One morning when I had fallen into an exhausted half-sleep, I heard loud voices, in my dialect, as when in the neighborhood the women leaned out the windows, arguing. From the darkest depths of my mind came the known footsteps on my mother. She didn’t knock, she opened the door, she entered, loaded down with bags.”
The Story of a New Name concerns itself with Lila’s infidelity, her affair with Nino, the son of Donata Sarratore, (whom Lena is also in love with.) When, after a miscarriage, Lila doesn’t again become pregnant, Stefano sends her to the seaside with the hope the sun, sea, air and water will strengthen her. Lena comes along. There Lila and Nino embark on an affair—preventing their attraction seems like trying to hold back the tide. Lila pleads to be allowed her pleasure, promising that upon her return to Naples, she will return to being a dutiful wife.
At this point in reading the text I began to play a game; I began to anticipate, were I the author, what would come next. Were it my book, I would have described whether Stefano had any inkling of Lila’s betrayal. When Michele Solara, from the wealthiest family in neighborhood, sees Lila and Nino holding hands while walking back from the beach, the news was sure to get back to Stefano.
I figured Stefano wouldn’t want to divorce Lila, because he loved her, at least he used to love her, and because a divorce would be a source of shame to him. But, Ms. Ferrante didn’t follow my imaginary script; if she doesn’t even mention him until later, it’s because he too had been having an affair—with Ada, the daughter of Melina, who worked for him.
As clever as Lila is, she doesn’t look after her own interests. Despite her vow, she and Nino continue their affair after their return from the beach, and she becomes pregnant. Stefano wanted a child, but instead of allowing him to pretend the child is his, she repeatedly throws in his face that he isn’t the father of her son. Nino meanwhile has abandoned her and isn’t even aware that he has fathered a son. When she leaves with Enzo, she throws all the jewelry Stefano has given her, including her engagement and wedding rings, on the table
Indeed, Lila can be exasperating.
Maybe it’s my age and experience but I failed to see Nino’s charm—okay, he’s handsome and intelligent, BUT he’s also unemployed and hardly has a pot to piss in. But, neither Lila nor Lena seems concerned with economics. Oh, well…
The Story of a New Name ends on a pathetic note for Lila, who now lives in a dumpy apartment with her son Rinuccio and Enzo and works in a sausage making factory (this part has shades of Zola); meanwhile, Lila has published her first book, a novel inspired by Lila, Nino and losing her virginity. She is engaged to Pietro, the son of an important professor.
The third book is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I’ve already started it but am yet to read just how Lila extricates herself and Rinuccio from their abject desolation. Knowing Lila, I’m sure she will.