My Brilliant Friend was childhood and the end of childhood. The Story of a New Name takes us and our two heroines from this point through dramatic events into the future. Though it only spans a few years, there is so much that happens in their lives it feels like a longer period.
I was stunned by the Neapolitan novels, and read them in quick succession. Now looking back to try to do a short review, I still feel their power. I was so caught up in these stories which were unfamiliar to me, and startling. Even the opening of the book, which I perhaps rushed over to get to the narrative, is shocking. Lila gives Elena her diaries to keep for her and tells her not to read them. Lila reads them. And then tosses them into the river. Like many of the actions of characters in these novels, I believe what’s happening because I have been given enough insight into their character to understand at least some of what they’re doing, and at the same time, I am shouting, ‘No.’ Such a betrayal of confidence, and all of those words lost.
This is a violent book, and hard to read about Lila being beaten and raped by her husband, the attempts to get pregnant, the ostracising of her by his family. It is a strange book the way that it weaves commerce and daily bread into the story, as is necessary, as we need to survive as well as love and hate. So, there are struggles of where to work and who is working where and how wealth is gained and displayed.
It is a contrast then, to Elena’s path, where her way out of her poor neighbourhood and away from her family and the constrictions of life is through studies. Anyone who loves scholarship, and whose studies meant something to them, will be cheering Elena on as she wins a scholarship to university, becomes involved in student life and then begins writing.
I was reading the novels as the #metoo movement was gaining force and becoming vocal, which made the treatment of women and infidelities feel even more uncomfortable. It is a complex web: both Elena and Lila assert authority in their own ways, and yet with negative consequences. Lila takes a lover (Nino, the elusive main male character of the novels), falls pregnant which eventually leads to the full breakdown of her marriage, her moving out from her husband, and her loss of status and wealth. And because Lila has taken a lover, who Elena has desired for so long, she allows herself to have sex, for the first time, with Nino’s creepy father, Donato. I found this incident perhaps the most memorable and disturbing of the whole series.
The events at the end of the book were a surprise: Elena publishes a novel about herself, including the incident with Donato; but disguised. It is successful. She goes to find her old friend Lila working in terrible conditions in a factory. This surprised me too, this fall from grace, how Lila was an object of envy and desire for her brilliance and ability, and is now working her fingers to the bone.
Amazing, tough, gritty and psychologically powerful, and of course made me rush to get into the third novel of the series!