The Lying Life of Adults is the most intense writing about the experiences and interior life of a girl on the cusp of adulthood that I have ever read. It is brilliant, but also demands a lot from the reader: namely that we drop everything and immerse ourselves in the dark and brutally self-loathing first-person narrative of Giovanna, born in Naples in 1979 and almost 13 when the story begins.
Elena Ferrante’s new novel was published in Italy last year to critical acclaim, a degree of mania (queues outside bookshops ahead of its release) and, inevitably, a deal with Netflix. The Lying Life of Adults renders the author’s celebrated Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, sprawling by comparison. While the latter covers the lives of friends Lila and Lenù from elementary school until their sixties, The Lying Life of Adults ends when Giovanna is only 16. We can (and I do) hope for more, but if this is to be a standalone novel, it is enough.
The cast here is far smaller and the focus is tight. Giovanna is the cosseted only child of teachers, and the three of them live in an apartment high on a hill in a middle-class district.
Crucially, Giovanna has grown up with no extended family. Her mother’s parents are dead and “my father lived in utter autonomy, as though he had no blood relatives, as if he were self-generated”. Their social life revolves around another couple nearby, who also have teenage daughters. Yet every certainty and boundary that the child has grown up with is about to be destroyed.
Ferrante’s opening sentence gives away the essence of what is to come. “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” This is no amiable coming-of-age tale. It may even be, as we learn from an older, authorial Giovanna in the first paragraph, “merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption”.
Although the idea that her father Andrea called her “ugly” is fixed in Giovanna’s mind for ever, that’s not what he actually said. The exact phrase was “she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”
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This is our introduction to Giovanna’s paternal aunt, an unseen woman who still lives in the poor, low-lying district where Andrea was raised, and who has become a “bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls”.
Her father’s comment makes Giovanna want to meet Vittoria, and when she does, it is life-changing. Vittoria is probably the most transgressive, magnificently unsuitable aunt in the fictional canon.
And she comes into the girl’s life at a critical moment, just as Giovanna, like all adolescents, needs to break with her parents and discover who she is, on her own terms: “The proximity of that threatening and enveloping woman captivated me.” Vittoria speaks in dialect, badmouths Giovanna’s parents constantly, drives “an ugly car, stinking of smoke” and shouts obscenities at other drivers “that I had never heard uttered by a woman”.
Her aunt takes her to see the tomb of Enzo, a married man with whom she had been passionately, disastrously in love. This affair triggered the final rift between Vittoria and her brother Andrea. It’s quite the scene. “She . . . wept in front of the tomb, spoke to the marble, addressed bones she didn’t even see, a man who no longer existed.”
Vittoria also talks to Giovanna as a peer, introduces the idea of passionate sex as “everything” in life — and calls her niece “an intelligent little slut like me, but also a bitch”.
Throughout, Ferrante is creating ideas for the reader to consider — sparks that kickstart our own faulty memories or recall attempts at self-determination or feelings about faith and family.
Above all, there is the frequent repetition of the word “erasure” and other words like it: here are Ferrante’s often-discussed ideas about how our sense of self can slip away, becoming subsumed in others’ lives or smothering friendships.
The last 100 pages are less intense as the story inevitably expands outwards as years pass and Giovanna heads towards independent womanhood. She falls in love with a charismatic older student and contrives a friendship with his fiancée Giuliana.
So much, though, is still overshadowed by her father’s “ugly” outburst: “Andrea, speaking rashly, had stripped me of my confidence; Giuliana’s fiancé was kindly, affectionately restoring it.”
Redemption doesn’t come. Giovanna remains haunted by the fear that she is a terrible person and that Vittoria’s face “will lay itself on my bones and never go away”.
We ought to end this book reeling but instead it seems hopeful, with Giovanna’s life a work in progress. And it helps that her story is mediated via Ferrante’s formal, austere prose, which acts like a containment field for the extremes of emotion and the violence — latent and realised — that underpin much of the Neapolitan life that she and her English translator Ann Goldstein conjure here.
The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, RRP£20, 336 pages
Isabel Berwick is the FT’s Work & Careers editor
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