Unreliable Narrators & Impostor Syndrome: A Sort-of Book Review

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The Story of a New Name, the second book of the Neapolitan series, follows Elena and Lila into their twenties as they begin to face the consequences of the decisions they made–or that were made for them–as children. They continue to jockey for success by seeking power in education, neighborhood politics, and sex. Their primacy becomes muddled but Elena still battles the self-doubt she faced throughout the first book, and her worst fears are realized when the two become romantic rivals. Their love triangle drives much of the plot and provides a satisfying emotional menu for the reader: betrayal on Elena’s behalf, annoyance at her passivity, and a healthy serving of schadenfreude when their fortunes are reversed–which soon evaporates into shame when the reality of their situations becomes unmistakably clear to both the reader and Elena.

Elena’s evolving understanding of the friendship is this series’ great strength and source of psychological and social insight. There’s no doubt that she’s an unreliable narrator, but her perspective is framed not by her self-interest but by her generous feelings for Lila and, increasingly, her lack of world experience. Even as Elena gains some much-needed insight from Lila’s journals (new to book two and ripe for analysis another day), she is confronted with new people and experiences from outside her neighborhood that upend her understanding of the world and nip at her newfound confidence. The more her position relative to Lila solidifies, the less useful a reference point Lila becomes–the old rivalry seems trivial, even fruitless. Her empathy for Lila returns with dizzying implications:

Certainly, right after reading [Lila’s notebooks] and long before throwing away the box that contained them, I became disenchanted. My first impression, that of finding myself part of a fearless battle, passed. The trepidation at every exam and the joy of passing it with the highest marks had faded. Gone was the pleasure of re-educating my voice, my gestures, my way of dressing and walking, as if I were competing for the prize of best disguise, the mask worn so well that it was almost a face.

Suddenly, I was aware of that 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 afraid. I was afraid as I had been the day I arrived in Pisa. I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with the casual confidence.

There were many people at Normale who did. It wasn’t just the students who passed the exams brilliantly, in Latin or Greek or history. They were youths…who excelled because they knew, without apparent effort, the present and future use of the labor of studying. They knew because of the families they came from or through an instinctive orientation. They knew how a newspaper or a journal was put together, how a publishing house was organized, what a radio or television office was, how a film originates, what the university hierarchies were, what there was beyond the borders of our towns or cities. They knew the names of the people who counted, the people to be admired and those to be despised. I, on the other hand, knew nothing, to me anyone whose name was printed in a newspaper or a book was a god–Chapter 106

Elena’s class awakening stokes her existential uncertainty, and, once again, she realizes she’s late to the party. Buoyed by education, she feared but did not experience the class limitations her childhood friends faced early on, first Enzo, then Pasquale, Antonio, Reno–even, for all her fighting spirit, Lila. It isn’t until Elena manages to leave the neighborhood that she understands she can’t escape. This brings her back to Lila, chastened but changed. To her old friends, Elena is transformed, but her success feels as frail and as fraudulent as ever.

If I have to guess, I think it will be this between-worlds tension that defines the next of Ferrante’s novels, and I suspect that if the friendship between Lila and Elena is to be dramatically repaired, their shared awareness of class will be the glue that binds it.

Overall recommendation: Even better than the prequel. The plot gets juicier, the relationships more complex, and the themes more resonant. I’ve read few novels that are as insightful about and as interested in the psychology of class, particularly concerning characters who manage to achieve some degree of social mobility. The quote above about knowing nothing and thinking of printed names as gods spoke deeply and literally to my incurable impostor syndrome and for that reason alone I would give this book full marks.

Overall rating: Ten out of ten Ischian coconuts

Books read: 3 of 50

While I’m eager to return to Elena and Lila’s story, I’m going to take a short break and read The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff, a history book about the Salem witch trials I’ve been curious about since it published this fall.

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