I read My Brilliant Friend over the holidays, and just now (thanks to my brilliant friend) finished The Story of a New Name. I love the novels–especially the first one because of the way it juxtaposes the structures of school with the unstructured ways of trying to create historical change through education, individually defined. The Story of a New Name shows just how difficult change is–characters who seem ready to define the world in their own terms emerge as repetitions of their parents, and economic growth decays into poverty and hardship once more.
These novels capture the ways in which realism is about social categories. Elena bristles against the role she is assigned by her friend:
“Lila was sure I would never quit school. She had assigned me the role of the friend with glasses and pimples, always bent over her books, smart in school, and she couldn’t even imagine that I might change. But I didn’t want that role anymore” (46).
And yet, throughout the novel, this role also gives Elena comfort, even stability. For if Lila assigns social roles, her own character is defined through the way she always exceeds her role. Elena, however, needs the role for her dreams to become real. This tension–between the stability of roles and the instability of character, between repetition and historical change–is only amplified by the narrative structure where Elena narrates the story but Lila is its driving force.