I'm just going to go head and lay a blanket spoiler warning here--I know how furious I would be if someone ruined these big honking bricks for me. There's really nothing like a huge Tolstoyesque novel to suck you in, but so few books of this size really do; they rarely earn all that tree pulp. I read 300 pages of this one in a car on Saturday on the way back from vacation. At one point, the heroine, Elena Greco, writes a novel about her life to that point in a three-week fury of inspiration. I'm pretty sure that's a little sly joke: at that point the two novels have run on for about seven hundred pages. When does the older Elena lose her sense of economy?
My Brilliant Friend ends in the middle of the wedding of Lila (the titular friend) and Stefano Carracci, the local grocer. The hated mafioso Marcello Solara walks in wearing the shoes that Lila designed and Stefano gave away, and it's there that the Carracci marriage effectively ends: Ferrante memorably calls Lila's wedding ring a "glittering zero." But Lila's sudden loss of affection for her husband doesn't prevent Stefano from imposing the traditional demands of marriage: quarrels become beatings, sex becomes rape, children are demanded. When children don't come, the neighborhood gossip holds that Lila has a kind of freakish power to psychically murder them in the womb. More than anything, these novels are full of righteous rage about the ways that women are circumscribed by a male world. Elena, noticing the masculinized features of Neapolitan women only a decade older, has a vision of men literally taking over women's bodies:
When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia? Would Fernando leap from her delicate face, would her elegant walk become Rino's, legs wide, arms pushed out by his chest? And would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother's body but my father's?
My Brilliant Friend is something like an exploration of how genius differs from talent; The Story of a New Name wants to show just how genius is stifled and exploded. By the end of the novel, Lila is able to escape her marriage but at the cost of her comfort and safety. She ends up stuffing sausages in a factory. Meanwhile, Elena, perhaps lucky for having only talent and a more moderate beauty, ends up with something of the life she has dreamed: a university education beyond the walls of Naples, a successful novel. And yet she cannot stop herself from wanting that flash of beauty and glamor that Lila possesses, even at her lowest. It doesn't help that Lila embarks on an affair with the shrewd Nino, with whom Elena has been in love for years. Is Elena's reluctance to stop the calamitous affair another sign of her own self-effacement before Lila or an accurate recognition that the couple's incendiary natures make a better match?
The novel moves almost effortlessly through time, dwelling for hundreds of pages on a single summer on the vacation island of Ischia and then gliding through years. Ferrante punctuates the narrative with bursts of violence and shocking imagery. Elena's boyfriend, terrified by fears of infidelity and military service, falls to the ground and begins stuffing dirt in his mouth. In My Brilliant Friend, it's the shoes that bear all that symbolic weight; here it's a blown-up photo of Lila in her wedding dress that Stefano and the Solaras want to place in their glamorous new shoe store. Lila asserts control over her image, her body, in the only way she knows how: by destroying it. She insists on being allowed to amend the image if it's going to be hung, and obliterates it with modernist colors and shapes until only her eyes remain. She self-destructs.
One of the most gratifying things about The Story of a New Name is that many of the characters from the first novel who blended together for me became much clearer. There's dirt-eating Antonio, whose paranoia is only amplified by his time in the army. There's the no-nonsense Enzo, whose love for Lila is sublimated into a kind of taciturn self-sacrifice. Ada, the madwoman's daughter, craves Stefano for herself; Lila's sister-in-law Pinuccia lashes out at her husband because she can't admit she's fallen in love with someone else. Like adults growing into themselves, these characters come alive and give the novel a Dickensian or Tolstoyan quality. They're the main reason that the second novel might be even better than the first, although it's the troubling, neurotic, codependent relationship between Elena and Lila that anchors it. It's amazing, in fact, that after 700+ pages, there's still enough complexity and uncertainty in this relationship to explore.