The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
“Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” says Giovanna, protagonist of The Lying Life of Adults. Elena Ferrante’s latest novel explores a young girl’s discovery that adults are dishonest, manipulative, and hypocritical; however, the novel is written with brutal honesty, unabashed sincerity, and the straight-forward prose readers have come to trust in Ferrante’s novels.
When she was twelve, Giovanna overheard her father as he “uttered under his breath” to her mother that she, Giovanna, was “very ugly.” Thus begins Giovanna’s coming-of-age story. But it is her father’s explanation that “[a]dolescence has nothing to do with it: she’s getting the face of Vittoria.” Vittoria, his estranged sister. Giovanna is wounded but curious. This unforgettable utterance opens the door to an eccentric, beautiful, passionate, and complicated aunt who brings with her stories, family, truths, lies, and a bracelet—an heirloom.
Like Ferrante’s internationally successful “Neapolitan Quartet,” and her other novels, The Lying Life of Adults is set in Naples, Italy. Through the familiar narrative frame of an older, wiser woman writing, but doubting the truth of her own memory, Ferrante exhibits her strengths. With another introspective, clever, and insecure narrator, she explores the dark depths of growing up female. There is also a large cast of characters in this novel: a reaching map of family, friends, and community figureheads. And per usual with Ferrante, readers find themselves nodding their heads, even verbalizing, as our narrator Gianni is so prone to saying, “Yes.” Ferrante gives us the most secret of Giovanna’s thoughts and we recognize in them an unspoken truth that connects us all, survivors of adolescence, no matter our language.
That being said, The Lying Life of Adults is fresh. In upper-middle class Naples of the 1990s, Giovanna and her two best friends, Angela and Ida, were raised knowing that they “should be proud of being born female.” Feminism and class have given them a different world than Lenu and Lila’s (of the “Neapolitan quartet”) Naples of the 1960s. Giovanna and her girlfriends are safer, experience less physical violence and trauma, travel more freely, want for less. But in exchange, they doubt themselves; their comfort giving way to body-image and other insecurities.
Perhaps one of the most compelling elements of the novel is the deeply personal narration and the tight focus on the protagonist, and an internal world that reads as universal. We recognize our own narratives: fallen heroes in fathers, mothers we discredit, and the fantasies and idolization of the people in whom we wish to see ourselves reflected.
There is an awareness in the writing: an awareness of writing, of how fiction plays into the adult world of untruths. The mother of Giovanna’s best friend tells her that, “[t]he truth is difficult…novels aren’t sufficient for it.” Even Giovanna herself claims: “I’m not wise, but I read a lot of novels…Instead of my own words, phrases from books come to mind.” Tucked beautifully into the narrative is a charming, subtle, childhood friendship with Ida, who in an emotional apex reads a story she wrote to Giovanna; thus, revealing the connection the girls shared and will continue to develop as they “become adults as no one ever had before.”
Ferrante frequently calls attention to the romance stories, the “silly stories,” her mother edited and “often rewrote.” Ferrante, as writer, crafts a mother, a wife, a woman who pours her talent into others’ works only to service the genre of fiction into which female writers continue to be pigeonholed. The reader follows as Giovanna edits and often rewrites her own narrative. Giovanna as adult takes hold of the pen, but it is teenage Giovanna who takes control and decides what romance will mean to her. Ultimately, she steps bravely, assuredly, but not without mistakes onto the threshold of adulthood. The reader knows, however, that she will always be haunted by the women of her life. She is Giovanna, but she can never separate herself from the wild, mercurial, passionate Aunt Vittoria, nor from the quiet, calculated, editor-behind-the-scenes that is her mother.
Structurally, I wished to linger in the climax of the last fifty pages—of the hair-pulling anxiety, the dangerous and brave decisions—instead of the slow build of the novel through adolescent years. No matter, Elena Ferrante, the pen name of the highly successful and anonymous writer, delivers. Despite the many film adaptations of her novels, including the HBO series of the “Neapolitan quartet,” and being shortlisted for the MAN Booker International Prize for the quartet’s final novel The Story of the Lost Child, it seems success has not slackened Ferrante’s voice. She still has more to give, more stories to write.
KERI MILLER is pursuing her MFA in fiction at Florida State University. She is writing a novel set in a fictionalization of the nation’s largest retirement community: The Villages, Florida.