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The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

What is it about this series that so takes hold of the reader? Is it the Italian setting, so vividly evoked by Ferrante? Or is it the gorgeous, understated language? Could it be the truths about jealousy, love, loyalty and friendship that are uncovered? Or those irresistible characters of Lenu and Lila?

Perhaps it is a combination of all of these elements that means that the commitment of reading the series is well worth it, at least until the end of The Story of a New Name, which I have just finished.

While I have a toppling tbr pile, and can’t wait to start Rachel Cusk’s latest and find out what the fuss around Nevermoor is all about, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to resist moving straight on to the next instalment of Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of four books.

The first book told the story of Lenu, and her friend, Lila’s childhood friendship in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood in Naples. Even as children, the relationship between the girls was complicated, as are many of the different relationships between parents and children of the neighbourhood.

Both are talented students, but Lenu never forgets that she is only ever second best to Lila in the classroom. However, family circumstances dictate that only Lenu can continue with her studies, while Lila follows a different pathway.

The second book follows the different trajectories of the two, and its impact on their relationship.

Ferrante describes the cruelties and privations of the neighbourhood where they live, with poverty and endless competition for social supremacy dictating the behaviour of its residents. It is a harsh world of infidelity, violence and hopelessness.

Amid the squalor of life in Naples, there is respite when Lila and Lenu travel to a house on the coast, where Lenu experiences love, heartbreak, jealousy and humiliation. The episode is reminiscent of the complicated lives of young adults, when emotions are so vivid and heartbreak is acute. I loved the sense of long, hopeful days, and of stolen moments of intimacy. However, all of this is overlaid by a sense of impending doom as Lila lives by her own rules, dictated by her unruly heart.

I found the lives of Ferrante’s characters fascinating – from the brutal Solara brothers to the object of both Lila and Lenu’s affections, Nino.  And Lila and Lenu continue to surprise, with their all-too human weaknesses and complicated reactions as they sense their powerlessness.

As they move in opposite directions towards the end of the novel, the friends ultimately realise that whatever differences in their lives and circumstances, they will always be linked by their shared past. The journey that the two take is irresistible, and I can’t wait to again imerse myself in their Neopolitan lives.


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