There are many books that recall the feelings of one’s teenage years. There are quite a few YA novels that remind me of my youth, but they often feel glossy and retrospective rather than brimming with that ever-present ache of teen anxiety I remember occasionally as an adult (before trying to vanquish it from my brain forever, again). I should’ve known Elena Ferrante would write the book that made me remember those searing, clawing, self-loathing inner thoughts that I only sometimes imparted to a diary.
I never had much in common with Giovanna, a teenager in Naples, Italy in the early 1990s and the narrator of The Lying Life of Adults. But there’s a universality in Ferrante’s depiction of this teenage girl, as she observes her parents and the other adults in her life, and makes decisions based on what she learns. Adolescence is truly a series of realizations, and Ferrante does not hold back on them in her incisive narrative. For what makes us adults if not by observing how the adults around us navigate the world?
“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.”
The structure of Giovanna’s worldview is turned on its head when she overhears her beloved father describe her so; it’s the first sentence in the novel. Her father intimates that Giovanna is starting to look like her aunt, his estranged sister Vittoria that he openly despises. Giovanna decides then to seek out this person whose face she’s never seen, and to understand for herself if she carries the same ugliness that her father believes he sees in her.
This journey to see her Aunt Vittoria is the beginning of an odyssey for Giovanna. You could call it a coming of age, but this novel isn’t concerned with fastidious genre clichés (and its certainly not a YA book). The reader follows along as she discovers family histories that were hidden from her, observes the way people can look different depending on their mood, and studies how adults operate. Her father’s words were the catalyst, but the events of the narrative are propelled by Giovanna’s interactions with adults like her aunt, and the new people Vittoria brings into her life.
Much like Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet, class differences are embedded in the story. Unlike the quartet, the reader engages in the events from a middle class perspective in Giovanna, and Aunt Vittoria lives on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks—where her father also grew up and the place he left behind. Giovanna finds a thrill in being with her aunt, so different from her staid father, and finds herself almost creating another self, with a different adult example, a person that she might share physical qualities.
“But I had only to invoke my aunt, and she was already invading my head with her exciting, repulsive lexicon…”
Her father’s pristine image crumbles even further in Giovanna’s eyes as she becomes entrenched with her aunt’s life, full of dramatic relationships, the local community, and church. Conversely, Giovanna’s father shields himself from criticism and his past with his intellect, priding in education above all else for his daughter. Giovanna grapples with intelligence as a commodity, as if passed down from her father—at one point rejecting it almost as revenge on her parents and other times wielding it to her own advantage.
And yet, for a girl raised by two teachers, Giovanna remembers how her dad taught her that you can understand the measurement of a person’s intelligence by the size of their forehead. This was a particularly jarring point in the narrative, as the reader sees Giovanna use this information when sizing up a new friend. Despite a burgeoning questioning of her father (and to an extent, her mother), he remains a source of influence.
Ferrante’s always been fascinated by the transition from childhood to adulthood; how children are molded into adults. The Lying Life of Adults demonstrates how teenagers deal with constant paradigm shifts of their world: thinking they have it all figured out by witnessing a digression or moment that concludes for them what is true, only for the actions to materialize as meaning something completely different in the next moment.
A small bracelet in the novel represents that tumult of shifting meaning. It becomes a talisman of Giovanna’s journey, as it pops up like a specter on someone’s wrist, signifying another exchange, and usually another lie uncovered. The bracelet’s origins also have a shifting story, and it traces the complications of the entwined lives of the characters over years and generations.
“Around that time I began to think that if I wasn’t beautiful physically maybe I could be beautiful spiritually. But how? I had by now discovered that I didn’t have a good character, I inclined to malicious words and actions.”
Giovanna’s questioning of the world around her often deals with the question of physical beauty, per her growing physicality, but it also ekes into the religious as she meets a young man through her aunt’s church. He’s deeply spiritual, and when he talks everyone listens. He studies in Milan, away from Naples and the impoverished place he grew up. He's a source of great pride to the community. Giovanna falls in love with him in his display of thoughtful, religious oration, and after witnessing the disastrous results of love and lust in the adults in her life, she attempts to apply by example. And then realizes she must do the opposite of what these treacherous adults do.
When I think of Ferrante, I think of her angry women. Their anger can be outward, but the interior anger that Ferrante illustrates always drives my love of her writing. Perhaps now more than ever it feels like a manifestation of how women go through life: their anger at the powers that be pushed down beneath the surface. A seething rage, bubbling. And while Ferrante brings that signature emotion to The Lying Life of Adults, her main character seems to be just at the precipice of that anger and cynicism, and perhaps she can navigate a better way. At least, that’s how I’ll choose to look at it in light of the Ferrante ‘universe.’ More than any other of Ferrante’s books, The Lying Life of Adults gave me hope.
I imagine this translation must’ve been completed quickly—the English-reading world hears of a new Ferrante book released in Italy and immediately the great Ferrante translator Ann Goldstein must be working, and fast. Perhaps that’s why I did find some clunky sentences, some odd prepositions. (“I felt as if I were a container of granules that were imperceptibly leaking out of me through a tiny crack.”) Nevertheless, it’s always astounding to spend time with Ferrante’s (and Goldstein’s) prose. Ferrante seems almost in a genre all her own, and if so, it’s my favorite one.
Years pass seamlessly in My Brilliant Friend, and Ferrante works that same passage of time magic in The Lying Life of Adults. By the end, as an older teenager, Giovanna is determined not to follow in the paths laid out by the adults she knows. She steps into a new era, and I closed the book with deep admiration.
“Maybe everything would be less complicated if you told the truth.”
She said haltingly:
“The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that, novels aren’t sufficient for it. So will you do me that favor?”
Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many.
The Lying Life of Adults
By Elena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
322 pages. 2020.