I finally got around to reading the second Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novel, after reading the first three years ago. I bought the second, The Story of a New Name, immediately after finishing the first, My Brilliant Friend, but then it sat on my shelf. Story of my life, of course. I don’t do particularly well with series; I’ll read the first and even if I like it, I’m on to something entirely new, with a vague intention of getting back to the second in the series eventually, which rarely happens. (I have read all of the Julia Spencer-Fleming books — oops, except for the most recent one published this year — and not because they are amazing so much but because they are… I’m not sure why I’ve read all those actually. They are solid, enjoyable, but I may not get to the last one.)
I liked My Brilliant Friend but didn’t fall in love with it. I remember reading most of it on a plane coming home from Ireland, and it kept me good company. The books are absorbing, and I remember the ending vividly. My Brilliant Friend seemed kind of plainly written? I liked reading about two friends, and I liked getting a glimpse of life in Naples in the mid-20th century. It was fine.
I also read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment back in 2014. I got the ebook version from Emily Books (R.I.P.). I miss Emily Books! I didn’t always love their selections and I prefer to read books in print, but they introduced me to so many interesting authors I wouldn’t have read or possibly even heard about otherwise. (I know they still exist in conjunction with Coffee House Press, but I mean their monthly subscription service.) I wasn’t sure what to make of Days of Abandonment. I don’t remember it well. I remember the anger and the intensity and not much else. I think I might respond to it differently now.
I also — and I’m not sure why I did this but I have no regrets — read The Ferrante Letters last year, a book by four writers/scholars — Sarah Chihiya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards — that is basically a group read of the Neapolitan novels. This is obviously a book to read after finishing the series, but I didn’t feel the need to finish it first, and I got a lot out of the book anyway. In The Ferrante Letters, the authors exchange letters about the novels that are a mix of criticism and personal response, and then they each contribute a more formal critical essay on the series. I love books about books and books that take a personal approach to criticism, and this one was extremely good. It didn’t really matter to me that I hadn’t read most of the primary texts. I would get more out of the criticism were I to reread it now…but I won’t.
As for Story of a New Name, I was enthralled. I’ve finally caught Ferrante fever! I’m not exactly sure why it happened with this book and not the others, although at least one person told me this was the best book in the series, so maybe it’s just better than the others (perhaps this is why I don’t finish series, since often someone tells me what I’m reading is the best one and then I don’t want to continue?). I was so caught up in the character of Elena. I truly felt what it was like for her to have academic success but to doubt her abilities, to go back and forth in her feelings for Lila, to be obsessed with someone who isn’t obsessed back and who then falls in love with someone else. To want to leave your family and home town but to feel desperately afraid of what it takes to do it. To lose interest in the studying that will, possibly, open up future opportunities because hanging out with friends is too much fun. To lie to one’s mother to hang out with a boy. To move to a new place and become — or almost become — someone else. I could go on.
The book is so melodramatic! The emotions are over-the-top, the actions and speeches are large, the family drama never-ending. But this is what it can be like when you’re in your late teens and early twenties, as these characters are, I suppose. It all feels very…overdetermined? Let me be clear that I liked this quality very much. Of course Lila paints and papers over a large photograph of herself and turns it into a masterpiece of modern art! Of course Elena throws Lila’s writing into a river! Of course those particular things happen on a beach! Of course…well, I don’t want to get further into spoiler territory. There are many obvious symbols, many actions with weighty meaning, many stereotypical steps that Elena takes toward becoming a writer. It all feels so fraught and important and, unlike a soap opera, I guess, utterly believable and real.
This is not the sort of book I usually fall in love with, but it’s just what I needed toward the end of a strange semester and strange year. Whatever instinct it was that made me wait three years to get to this book was right.