What is it that happened to me since visiting Italy last summer? Something got under my skin. What I eat, how I see and even what I write has been influenced in sometimes subtle and other times bold fashion. Once in a while I find the strangest thought bubble up in my mind. “I wish I was born Italian.” I try to dismiss it as some random silliness. I hate the clichéd story of “a women goes to Italy to have an awakening”. Under the Tuscan Sun. A Room With a View. Eat. Pray. Love. And the rest. How to get away of this Italy influence? Sometimes the best way to get rid of a temptation, is to yield to it. And so I have been exploring Italy in my favorite way to visit any country, by reading its novels.
A trilogy of novels by Elena Ferrante that chronicles a friendship between two women came up in my search. I started with the second in the series thinking “If I don’t find them interesting as young women, I am not going to find them interesting as children.”
The Story of a New Name is written as if a confession. I could imagine the main character whispering into my ear furtively an unplanned monologue. The language is direct. Unembellished. A story doesn’t need to be beautifully written as long as it tells the truth. Here is the crux of the novel. It very much felt in my gut that it was telling the truth. A friendship between two women with all the betrayals, skirmishes, heart breaks, fights petty and grandiose and dynamics of such elaboration. I found it interesting since the nature of friendship between women is rarely explored in much depth. This novel doesn’t shy away from both the ugly and beautiful aspect of its subject. My only complaint is that in certain points the novel was verbose and repetitive. For example, one of the characters is stuck in a bad marriage. This point is elaborated with so many examples that I felt like screaming: “I get it already! she is in a bad marriage, can we please move on.” It took about 100 pages before I started enjoying my reading experience because the start was stalled by too much detail.
The main character of the novel is called Elena, the author is called Elena and the reader in my case is called Elen. Too many Elens. I felt like I was sitting in an echo chamber. Everywhere I looked there was another Elen staring me in the face. It brings up the question: “Is the novel autobiographical?” Without any means for reaching an answer. A bit annoying. Like the novel should have been called A Story of the Same Name Repeated in Versions, but got a title that sticks the tongue out at the reader instead.
Before I went to Italy I was writing this super serious novel about heart break. By the time I left Italy, I found myself starting something completely different. I am now writing a flippant novel that tells a story of woman through a series of eating experiences. One of the side characters works in a meat processing factory. For days I have been imagining the stink of a daily routine of stuffing sausage casings and rendering animal fat. I purchased myself hotdog socks. To get myself in the mood, I boiled 24 sausages in a big pot so that the whole house would stink of the meat factory of my imagination. Last Thursday, I sat down in the evening to read the last 70 pages of The Story of A New Name wearing my hotdog socks, hair smelling of boiled sausages only to discover that Ferrate un-expectedly delves into a detailed description of a sausage making factory. I got goose bumps. This is simply too weird. Is the book now reading my thought?
One last comment, the book cover design is drab. I can’t imagine a more boring cover design for this compelling novel. And yes, I am planning to read #1 and #3 in the series. I can’t resist. It is now under my skin.