A fairy tale is in essence a tease. It thrives on the pretense that evil and magic are viable and visible, and that a love-conquers-all happy ending is inevitable, expected, and true. We never know what the newly betrothed prince and princess do inside the castle all day once the protective screen of “happily ever after” descends. Did the princess really get to slough off her rags and soot, or did the fairy dust become regular dust that she’d have to clean?
Elena Ferrante’s spellbinding work The Story of a New Name gives us a glimpse of that reality for two young women, Elena Greco and Lina Cerullo, who are trying to achieve their version of princess-happiness. The novel is marked by deft narrative pacing, a controlled balance of lyricism, biting sarcasm, and devastating cliffhangers throughout. But even more remarkable is the fact that the story somehow maintains its fierce hold on the intrinsic fantasy. Elena and Lina search for and find their princes and fulfill their dreams in spite of their dejecting reality.
The Story of a New Name is the second book of Ferrante’s sprawling series of Neapolitan Novels. The saga began with the critically acclaimed My Brilliant Friend, set in 1950s working-class Naples. Elena, who narrates the book from the perspective of adulthood, meets Lina in first grade. Competing for boys’ and teachers’ attention, they are opposites who draw lines between themselves and cross them just as quickly. Lina, feisty but beautiful, doesn’t have the means to continue in school but marries at sixteen, whereas Elena, more brainy than she is pretty, is accepted to a prestigious high school. Which of them is the eponymous “brilliant” one remains ambiguous—they each envy what the other has, one craving the modern freedom of scholarship and the other the conventional security of marriage. The book ends on a note of high drama when Lina, in her marital glory, is cruelly reminded of the life she gave up for “love.”
Book Two, which can perfectly stand on its own, further complicates the friends’ intertwined stories. The “story of a new name” refers to Lina’s transformation into Signora Carracci, the well-groomed wife of the grocer, Stefano; the adulteress who sleeps with the man her best friend loves, and bears his child; the volatile mother who calmly entertains Stefano’s mistress living in her house. In effect, she becomes the woman they both admired as girls: although they “wanted to become wives, growing up [they] had almost always sympathized with the lovers, who seemed to [them] more spirited, more combative, and, especially, more modern.” Lina gets to have it both ways, and, in reading the notebooks given to her for safekeeping, so does Elena.
Just when her own upswing is set in motion, Elena admits that without Lina “time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, it’s done.” On the other hand, with Lina, “The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there. Her things end up among mine.” This chaos is what we’re interested in, and even Elena knows that without Lina she is merely an “almost.”
While the title of the novel derives from the story of Lina’s new name, it also advances that of Elena. The details of Elena’s adolescence (even the “racy” ones) find their way into a novel she writes while studying at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, where she meets her fiancé. She gives him a copy of the first draft on her graduation night; his mother reads and loves it, sends it off to a publisher, and the book comes out the following spring. For her illiterate parents, Elena’s success is an even greater source of pride than her making a good wife, especially when she tells her mother that she’ll keep her maiden name—Greco—on her book jackets after marrying. Thus, like Lina, Elena also has a new name that bolsters her reputation, but unlike Lina she can choose not to be imprisoned in a marriage.
One can’t ignore the additional layer of naming at the author level: Elena’s story is written by a woman named Elena who is notoriously private and even rumored to be a man. For prose so attuned to the modulating keys of female friendship and the fraught longing for independence to be penned by a member of the opposite sex would be masterful if not slightly infuriating. Yet it would also be quite fitting for “Ferrante’s” view of fiction: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.”