Books on GIF #16 — 'The Story of a New Name' by Elena Ferrante


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'The Story of a New Name' by Elena Ferrante.


This is a book about violence. How dreams of this:

Become realities of this:

It's about being trapped — in loveless and abusive marriages and in backward and abusive hometowns. And it's about escaping these traps — or trying to — and how sometimes the only way out is to burn it all down.

We reenter the lives of Lila and Lenu for Book Two of Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels* series with Lila a 16-year-old bride and Lenu trying to finish high school. The book gets off to a fast start with Lila realizing her marriage is over before the wedding celebrations have even finished. From there, she contends with a litany of horrors that include spousal rape, domestic violence, murder threats from loved ones, petty jealousies and being blamed and scorned for having a miscarriage. The book is relentless and intense. Whenever I put it down, I was like:

Lenu, who narrates, alternates from being jealous of her friend's marriage (and its promise of sex), to being standoffish because —

— to being supportive as her friend's dire circumstances become clearer to her. Along the way, she realizes that not only must her friend escape her  marriage, but she herself must break free from her backward family and neighbors.

This book was riveting, depressing and extremely well written. Unlike other writers who rely on oh-so-clever gimmicks or fussy turns of phrase, Ferrante's narrative is tight and yet still breathes like a memoir.  Lenu is not an omniscient narrator. She tells the story based on incomplete knowledge, and she's not an entirely honest or disinterested arbiter of Lila's story, either. She's obsessed with her friend, and tells the story through a prism of her own desires, experiences and jealousies. This creates a story with many layers, subtleties and spaces where the reader has to suss out what's been misunderstood, or left unsaid. Everything doesn't fit together neat and nice. **

This is not to say Ferrante doesn't use the basic devices of fiction.  She uses symbols, for example, that are unsubtle in their presentation, but also have layers of meaning. Early on, Lila gives Lenu a box that contains notebooks filled with her most personal thoughts that she must hide from her husband. The box stood for many things. Like Lila's marriage that she's trapped in, where her true feelings must remain locked away. Like Lenu's secrets, kept hidden. Like the neighborhood that seeks to trap women in subservient and uneducated roles. And, most obviously, like Pandora's box, because when Lenu opens it and reads its contents, she is forever changed. She throws it all into the Arno River. ***

And then there's the photograph. It's a photo of Lila in her wedding dress blown up large to display inside her family-and-gangster-run shoe store to advertise the footwear (that she designed) seen in the picture. Lila objects to using the picture at first, but then becomes amenable if she's allowed to alter it.  Her husband and his business partners agree and she and Lenu transform the photo into avant-garde artwork. Parts of her face and body are obscured by black strips, revealing just one eye, part of her leg and, of course, the shoe. No explanation of this metaphor is needed, and it won't surprise anyone that the picture eventually goes up in flames.****

If I'm giving too much away. I apologize. But this book is too good and I have too many thoughts about it. So much so that I've had a hard time focusing on the book I want to review next!

'The Story of a New Name' (Storia del nuovo cognome), by Elena Ferrante, was originally published in 2012. It was translated by Ann Goldstein and published in 2013 and 2015 by Europa Editions. 471 pages.

My Rating:

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,' by William Finnegan, 'The Sympathizer,' by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and 'The Dispossessed,' by Ursula Le Guin, among others.

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Thanks for reading!


Click here for my review of 'My Brilliant Friend,' Book One of Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels series.
** I can't stop looking at this GIF!
*** I made this GIF using this video from Chuck Hake.
**** Thanks to Julia and Nicole for their very helpful insights into this book.