The Story of a New Name,the second of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels begins with Lila Cerullo trapped in a loveless marriage and Elena Greco grimly determined to use education as her route out of her impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood. Elena is haunted by the fear of becoming her mother:
“Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” The women of the neighborhood bore the scars of multiple pregnancies, back-breaking labor and domestic violence. They were silent with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin with hollow eyes and cheeks or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And good god, they were ten at most twenty years older than me.What I found most depressing in Ferrante’s account of these women’s lives was the extent to which the women themselves accepted abuse. When Lila’s husband, Stefano, tries to beat her into submission, “there was no one in the neighborhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think she need a good thrashing for along time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.”
Ferrante’s sympathies extend to the young men who are trapped in the sexist script written for them from time immemorial; Elena recounts her conversation with Stefano, both driven by and disturbed by the role he has been conditioned to play:
With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on propose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever ever would have wanted. Here he assumed an almost frightened tone…The culture of violence is a trap for both men and women, and for Elena leaving the neighborhood is the only hope for escape.
Elena and Lila’s lives continued to diverge; their relationship deteriorates further when Lila began an affair with the love of Elena’s life, her old school friend Nino Serratore. The relationship led to Lila’s finally leaving her husband, a dangerous act in culture in which men consider themselves justified in murdering an adulterous wife. Lila was soon abandoned by Nino and once again living in poverty while Elena continues her upward climb.
Howver, despite her success in school, Elena is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one and that she is an unworthy impostor. She sees her success as something achieved through “sheer persistence” rather than through talent. Elena wins a scholarship to the University of Pisa and continues her improbable climb from extreme poverty to the educated upper-middle class.
Her success leads to further tension with her family. Her mother is both proud of her and resentful of her success: "I had outdistanced her and she felt it, she resented me for it.” Elena’s engagement to Florentine academic Pietro Airota only deepened the sense of estrangement.
Elena then accomplished what to her family and to herself was the unthinkable—-she published a successful, critically acclaimed novel. As a consequence, she finally achieves a measure of self-confidence. Once she had passively accepted the non-stop sexual harassment that was part of life in the neighborhood. Now she has the strength to fight back
I felt a power that no longer knew how to adjust to the pretend not to notice with which in general, it was possible to survive in the neighborhood and outside it. Whenever in the throng of passengers I felt male hands on my body, I gave myself the sacrosanct right to fury and reacted with cries of contempt…
Although Elena’s self-confidence increased dramatically, the hidden injuries of class were never far from the surface. She realizes that she can never achieve the self-assurance of those who were born into privilege.
Suddenly I was aware of the almost: Had I made it? Almost. Had I torn myself away from Naples, the neighborhood. Almost…Behind the almost I seemed to see how things stood. …I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with casual confidence.
And the old fear of being overshadowed by Lila never disappeared. Lila had entrusted Elena with a box filled with her notebooks, which she feared her husband would destroy. Elena immediately starts reading the notebooks even though she had sworn to Lila that she would not.
Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentence written when she was still a child seemed to empty out mine…every past effort of mine seemed without meaning.
Consumed with jealousy of Lila’s talent and tormented by self-doubt, Elena throws the box with Lila’s notebooks into the Arno river. Elena, the “good girl” is capable of real malevolence.
The novel ends with Elena, a successful author, at a book signing in Milan. As she did in My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante concludes the novel with a dramatic plot twist: the man Elena has loved since childhood turns up to praise her book. The novel ends with the implicit question: Will Nino destabilize Elena’s life and threaten her marriage as he did with Lila?