In the second installment of the Neapolitan Quartet, Lila is married and enters the family business while Elena leaves the neighborhood to continue her studies. The two young women share a complex and evolving bond as they face new and intimate pressures.
No matter how distant and essentially exotic Ferrante’s Naples, the unadulterated naturalistic psychology of her characters cuts very close to the bone. There are few writers who so acutely and seductively frame the eternally wounded, stupidly brave teenager inside a grown woman’s heart … There’s an unforgiving cruelty to the world that Ferrante releases her characters into. They are molested and beaten, but then transported by a crush. They’re never given any reason to look at love and sex as anything other than mercenary, and yet they let themselves desire. Lila and Elena vacillate between numbness and fever—falling victim to both … Ferrante’s writing is so unencumbered, so natural, and yet so lovely, brazen, and flush. The constancy of detail and the pacing that zips and skips then slows to a real-time crawl have an almost psychic effect, bringing you deeply into synchronicity with the discomforts and urgency of the characters’ emotions.
Elena’s first-person account charts what scholars and politicians alike have ominously labeled the Southern Question: the cultural and economic divide between north and south that has defined Italian life for centuries. But history never overpowers what is at heart a local story about the families living along a poor Neapolitan stradone, or avenue, with intricate plotlines spun like fine thread around Elena and Lila … Ferrante’s gift for recreating real life stems as much from the quiet, unhurried rhythm of her writing as from the people and events she describes. The translation reproduces Ferrante’s narrative ebb and flow while registering the distinct features of her voice.
The books are at once juicy, engrossing historical novels — so crowded with characters they require a prefatory family tree to keep the names straight — and searingly intense parables of artistic creation … In these thousand or so pages, so far, occur some episodes and sections that made me wonder if the endlessly expansive form of a multi-book saga had encouraged Ferrante to sacrifice too much of the lean economy of her earlier novels. Yet by the end of The Story of a New Name, you feel that the novels have more than earned their amplitude.