Updated: Apr 20, 2022
“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly,” is the brutal opening line of Elena Ferrante’s most recent novel The Lying Life of Adults. We meet Giovanna when she is just twelve years old, on the cusp of adolescence, her world about to turn upside-down. The unassuming and obedient daughter to a pair of intellectual parents grows up in Naples of the heights – the middle-class part of this city in Southern Italy, where left wing intellectuals can discuss Marx around the dinner table and play the role of tolerant liberals without risking proximity to issues or people that might expose other sides of their carefully arranged personalities. Giovanna admires the parents she knows, who are kind and adoring towards her, treat her with respect, but expect achievements in return. The troubles begin, when Giovanna’s grade decline and while her mother Nella tries to explain this development with the begin of puberty, her father fears the worst: might his precious daughter be turning into the part of himself he has tried so hard to leave behind? Might she grow to resemble not him and his wife, but his sister Vittoria, whom he loathes both for her character and the world she represents?
Overhearing his father compare her to his sister scares Giovanna, who know little about her aunt apart from the fact that her parents despise her. The comparison to a woman who, in Giovanna’s mind, has become the personification of ugliness sends her into a true existential crisis. She cannot recognise herself anymore and is unsure of her place in the world. Giovanna cannot remember her aunt Vittoria’s face, there are no photos of her in the house, so how can the girl be sure she isn’t beginning to resemble her? She has to descend to that other world: to Naples of the depths, where her father was born but never wants to step foot in again. As Giovanna discovers her lost family, Naples and herself she is confronted with issues of sex and relationships, friendships and families, politics and religion, and varying definitions of truth. Family secrets are unveiled, bonds are broken and reformed in this merciless tale of growing into adulthood.
The premise and plot of The Lying Life of Adults are deceptively simple, but the carefully crafted characters add a deep complexity to Ferrante’s novel. Especially Giovanna is so strongly developed, her transformation from the sweet, gullible young girl, into a sharp, sulking and at times aggressive teenager reads perfectly natural and evokes memories of adolescent fears and emotions. The slow pace of the plot does not limit the enjoyment of this novel, as you want to take your time getting to know these characters and witnessing how they deal with the challenges life throws at them – however flawed they might be. I savoured the personification of Naples, the careful construction of its streets and personalities transported me to this unique Italian city I have never visited. The distance between Naples’ liberal, wealthy elite and its poor and poorly educated is sharply criticised. There is no room for forgiveness and compassion for either group, Ferrante writes her ruthless truth and (as the title suggests) accuses all her characters of twisting and hiding truths, of lying. The disillusionment that adolescence brings is so pertinent, it could almost be listed as one of the characters and despite the bleak atmosphere it creates, I devoured this novel and admire Ferrante’s work so much, I can even forgive the abrupt ending.