Book Review: The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante, tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Story of a New Name is a great summer read. It will take you into Italy, a specific Neapolitan neighbourhood and holiday beaches. For those reading as writers, read to see how Elena Ferrante creates place and how she develops character. The Story of a New Name may be a great summer read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a story worth reflecting on “how” the magic happens.

Elena Ferrante creates a time and place that is drenched in tradition: a neighbourhood in 1960s Naples, and two women’s struggles to break the chains of their roles and male machismo.

The Story of a New Name is narrated by Elena Greco who unravels her complicated friendship with Lina/Lila Cerullo throughout the 471 pages of the book (the second in a series). The close bonds the girls shared through childhood are broken when Lina/Lila marries Stefano Carracci. With that ceremony, Lina becomes a wife and all that implies in the traditional 1960s Neapolitan neighbourhood. Lina/Lila, however, doesn’t embrace expectations. Elena remains in school struggling for books and space to study, and to experiment in her own way with blossoming sexuality and unrequited love.

I understood suddenly why I hadn’t had Nino, why Lila had had him. I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits.

Ferrante is a master storyteller. Quickly we’re engrossed in the lives of the neighbourhood, the interpersonal entanglements, local politics, and money. But at its heart, this story is a story of friendship overcoming obstacles—many created by the girls themselves.The girl-women are opposites in many ways: Lina/Lila marries into relative wealth; Elena struggles for schoolbooks and space to study. Their temperaments and morals are also polar opposites. Lina/Lila goes after what she wants, recreates herself; Elena holds back and her transformation comes slowly. But like the yin and yang of self, they are bonded.

…Lila knew how to draw me in. And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that’s enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself. What was that deception but another of her fantastic moves, which were always full of risks? The two of us together, allied with each other, in the struggle against all.

The Story of a New Name took me in deep into a time and place unknown to me, but one clearly lived by the author who shares her name with the fictional narrator of this story. (For a story of friendship between men, check out What I Loved.

For those reading as writers, think about how Ferrante creates place and character, and how she builds the tension that keeps us turning pages.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Story of a New Name

Of men and ships (The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy)

For writers, Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship offers insight into developing 3 skills: how to develop character, how to write an active narrator in your stories, and how to weave research into your narrative.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Benjamin Lundy, a young adventurer, signed aboard the four-mast merchant ship Beara Head. It is his first crossing of the Atlantic, of rounding South America’s Cape Horn, and of treacherous ventures into the Southern Ocean. Derek Lundy transports us into a world of men, of wind and storms, of waves and ice, of the workings of a square-rigger ship, and more.

Of the men, Lundy says that Benjamin “never admired anyone more than these ragged, tattooed, wild-looking men; he hungered to be like them, and to be accepted by them.” Of wind Lundy writes that in the Southern Ocean there are storms like no other: “Getting a ship round Cape Horn could be the most difficult job a captain would ever do at sea.” For Benjamin,

“He had never seen a seascape like it and could not have imagined it. Benjamin wedged himself into the railings of the windward poop steps and looked out over a sea that writhed and heaved with such monstrous, uncontrollable energy that he was amazed that the barque continued to lie within it. He looked up at wave crests like waterfalls toppling down eighty-foot-high hills, then down into troughs that seemed bottomless, the sea there merely a darker part of the deep hole he teetered above.”

This book could only have been written by a sailor who loves ships and the sea. Derek Lundy’s passion comes through the weaving of words by Melville and Conrad, their insight (and his own) into the meaning the sea holds for us all. His research doesn’t end with reading other authors, or ships’ logs and old accounts of voyages by captains and mates. During its writing, Derek Lundy signed onto a sailing ship and rounded the Horn to gain first-hand experience (although he admits that with today’s technology, his voyage is never ever close to as dangerous as that of his great-great uncle.)

The third narrative woven tightly into The Way of a Ship is the story of ships and shipping during the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn the cargo and parts of merchant sailing ships, the rough men who loaded and redistributed cargo (in this case hot coal) and raised and lowered sails, who cared for every bit of rigging and for the ship itself. We learn about the officer class who commanded (often cruelly) the men, and on this ship, the “hen,” the captain’s wife who sailed with them. We glimpse the era’s industrial, political, and social history, and of barques themselves. We experience love and terror of the sea, and we gain respect for the men who rode upon it during the age of four-mast-barques.

For the writers among us, Lundy provides lessons:

  1. First, we can learn a lot by reading closely to see how he builds characters, Benjamin’s first among them. He is not a two dimensional photograph in a family album; he is a vital youth who becomes a man who knows himself. As you read, think about the development of others (the shanty singer, the mates, the fearsome and the friends, and don’t forget the captain’s wife).
  2. Like The Cave by José Saramago (book review of The Cave), Lundy gives us a narrator who claims a voice in the story (in Lundy’s case, himself). If you’ve tried this, you know how tricky the balancing act can be. Writers who read conscientiously will see how Lundy balances the voice of his great-great-uncle Benjamin with his own contemporary insights and knowledge. And you’ll see how he builds a context of sharing a love for sailing and the sea.
  3. Finally, I’ve never read a better example of an author weaving research—both secondary and primary—into his story. He has made me want to reread Melville and Conrad as well as creating in me respect for other like Captains Cook and Vancouver whose logs he references.

The Way of the Sea: a square-rigger voyage in the last days of sail by Derek Lundy reflects on an era that has passed, but the romance of the sea is alive and well (witness the number of sail-and/or-work-aboard opportunities that exist today on “tall” and other “model” ships). Perhaps because I sailed the Caribbean Sea over four seasons (some foolishly during hurricane months) I fell right into Lundy’s story and experienced the frightening and frustrating doldrums along with squalls far beyond those that riled the water around my sailing sloop and tore its squawking sails. But even if you’re not a sailor, you’ll be drawn into this adventure.

Whether you’re a writer, an armchair reader or an adventure traveller, I’d love to hear what you think of Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship.

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Cover image: Alfred A. Knopf 2002 edition

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Way of a Ship