Translated by Anne Goldstein
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Adolescence can be brutal, and in The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante brings it out in all its ugly passions, grievances and unashamed certainties that so often turn out to be uncertainties. It all starts for Giovanna when her father makes an offhand remark that she is starting to look like her much maligned aunt Vittoria. All ties have been severed; for Giovanna’s parents, Vittoria is just a swear word, a personification of all things bad. But for Giovanna, the remark sparks a fear that she really is turning into her aunt, and an obsession with this relative shrouded in mystery: who is she, supposedly, turning into?
Through Vittoria, Giovanna’s adolescence becomes a tale of two cities. She lives in the Naples of the heights where her parents debate academia, speak standard Italian, and her closest friends, sisters Angela and Ida, just talk of things like sex. Vittoria, however, lives in the depths of their city, in an area that for Giovanna and her parents is marked by dirt, dialect and vulgarity. As she gets to know her cut-off relatives and a different way of living in her city, Giovanna oscillates between angst and elation, questioning her identity, where her allegiances lie, who she is allowed to love and befriend, and what kind of person she should be. At the same time, her own family is breaking apart, and adulthood becomes a performance of lies, which she finds herself travelling deeper and deeper into.
The Lying Life of Adults is a novel driven by strong characters. Giovanna as the narrator is a beautiful collection of anxieties and infatuations, and they are all so tangible that you don’t question her decision to be the worst girl in her school, only to then put all her effort into becoming a well-read one; even her seemingly overblown obsession with her aunt comes across as the most natural thing in her tormented teenage mind. It could all boil over into an unintended parody of puberty but Ferrante contains all the emotional turmoil in a relatable way.
Aunt Vittoria, too, could easily turn into a comedy character with her extreme hatreds and sudden bursts of love. However, in her passionate way hating others and committing herself to grievances others would give up, she has something of Lila of the Neapolitan series in her. She is erratic, spiteful and flawed, but you rarely come across such completely human characters. No one is in the novel just to fill in the story: parents, various family friends, love interests and perves are all fleshed out in a wonderfully realistic way. Ferrante makes you believe in her characters.
What the novel misses out on is a sense of time and development. I rarely complain about not enough happening, but the story spans several years from Giovanna’s early teens to her sixteenth birthday and — remarkably little happens. In a way dwelling on the same emotions is part of the beauty of the book as it’s so rich in the inner workings of all the complex minds, but at the same time, it’s all a bit stagnant. It’s as if Vittoria and Giovanna’s, or any other relationships, are frozen in time, taking place on a small pendulum that never swings very far, even as years pass. It’s only towards the end that you get a sense of that sort of evolution — but then the end comes too soon, just as the pendulum is finally pushing far enough.
Ignore the passing of years, though, and you have brilliant snapshot of what happens when people get caught up in their passions. Much like the Neapolitan series, it’s also a story about social divides and cultural clashes. In times when holiday means staycations and travel is bookended by quarantines, The Lying Life of Adults is geographical escapism too — and travelling in Ferrante’s prose beats all over-crowded planes and tourist-ridden streets.
Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.
Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions, 2020). 978-1787702363, 322pp., hardback.
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