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.
My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name leaven [Ferrante’s] fierceness with a new warmth and expansiveness. They don't merely offer a teeming vision of working-class Naples, with its cobblers and professors, communists and mobbed-up businessmen, womanizing poets and downtrodden wives; they present one of modern fiction's richest portraits of a friendship … For all of Lila's defiant grandeur, these books are finally about Elena. To find her own, original voice, she must shake off the crushing values she was raised with, resist the blandishments of conventional success and learn from Lila without being overpowered by her.
This topic of female friendship may seem prosaic and even fertile ground for melodrama, but Ferrante is too gifted and too smart to reduce her own psychological observations to dramatic extremes. Instead she mines the emotional gamut of friendship through success, poverty, betrayal, abuse, and resignation … The Story of a New Name is a departure from her previous novels in that it is much longer and involves a multitude of characters that intersect, overlap and weave seamlessly in and out of the narrative. Most importantly though, it examines the role of femininity, how it represses, constricts, judges and becomes currency.
Lila Cerullo is a woman as trapped, betrayed and unforgettable as Madame Bovary; the violent slum where she and her best friend Elena grow up as teeming as any 19th-century cantonment. Yet Ms. Ferrante’s voice is startlingly honest and modern in her descriptions of the psychic toll this world takes on two young women … If the best prose is like glass—communicating without calling attention to itself—Ms. Ferrante’s is crystal, and her storytelling both visceral and compelling.
The through-line in all of Ferrante's investigations, for me, is nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women (not only Neapolitan women), and its implicit j'accuse. Ferrante seems to be holding our heads stiffly so that we cannot look away, telling us repeatedly, This is how it is … What's hardest is to watch Lila, Ferrante's frenzied warrior, gamble and lose, time after time, trying and failing to adapt conventional roles in any fresh way that might save her.
Lenú and Lila are not so much written on the body as through negotiations with its image, like Lila's glamorous wedding photo, which recurs as a traded totem until Lila does violence to her own image, resurrecting it as a piece of art. Creation is destructive, for Lila especially … Ferrante writes with a constant case of ‘dissolving margins.’ Her descriptions pursue details of forms until their centres cannot hold … Ferrante is a master of the unsayable. Words go under water, surface, disappear again. If Lenú minds her language, Lila says what she likes, but nothing that can be published.
Ferrante’s description of these and other tangled interrelations between individuals and families carries the flavor of intense adolescent emotion … Some readers may reach the end of this longish book wishing the narrator had spent more time exploring the political and academic controversies of post-war Italy, and less on the often squalid rivalries, infidelities, threats of violence, and general bad blood stewing in her old neighborhood, which sometimes call to mind low-budget Neorealist films of the era … In the end, Lenú’s gifts of observation and general decency compensate for occasional tiresome patches in the storytelling.