Book lovers in Italy held Harry Potter-style vigils the night before the release of Elena Ferrante’s first novel since the finale of the Neapolitan quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) was published in 2014. The hype surrounding The Lying Life of Adults and its pseudonymous author – now widely believed to be the translator Anita Raja – could have backfired, but it did not. Copies flew out of Italian bookshops and supermarkets.
Readers who loved the Neapolitan novels will doubtless fall for this one, too, and will be happy to notice that the last line of the book can be interpreted as a hint of more to come.
As Lenù defined herself in terms of her “brilliant” but difficult friend Lila in the Neapolitan novels, Giovanna has a complicated female character against whom she measures herself. In her case, it is her Aunt Vittoria, her father’s sister who fills her parents with “revulsion and fear”. and whose name “was like the name of a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her”.
At age 12, Giovanna has started her period and entered puberty. She’s suddenly doing poorly at school; her idyllic childhood is slipping away. “My only comfort at that time, my only certainty, was that [my father] absolutely adored me, all of me.” But then she overhears a fateful conversation between her parents. When her mother attributes her troubles to preteen upheaval, her father disagrees. “Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”
The ugly monster Vittoria? Giovanna tears through the house looking for a picture, finding what must be Vittoria’s face pasted over in every snapshot. Now she’s obsessed: She simply must see her aunt, even if she has to venture beyond their middle-class neighbourhood, even if she must go “down, and down, keep going down, into the depths of the depths of Naples”, walking “for days, for months ... Sun, heat, rain, wind, cold, and I who was walking and walking ... until I met my own future as an ugly, faithless woman.”
Regardless of any other characteristics she may have inherited from Vittoria, it is soon clear that the two share serious drama queen tendencies. After their first meeting, reluctantly orchestrated by her parents, Giovanna begins sneaking over there all the time, fascinated by Vittoria’s vulgarity and her “beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity”.
During one memorable visit, Vittoria drags Giovanna to the cemetery to visit the grave of her former lover Enzo, who she claims died of grief. “Yes, of grief. Your father made him get sick, your father who was the cause of our separation. He killed him.” Along with her hatred of Giovanna’s father, Vittoria’s lack of bourgeois refinement and her openness about sex combine to make her rebellion incarnate. Vittoria winds up the graveyard visit by vividly describing to her young niece her sexual encounters with Enzo. “Oh what a story, oh to learn to speak like that, outside of every convention of my house,” Giovanna thinks rapturously.
As the novel follows Giovanna to her 16th birthday, she continues to drift away from her family, which isn’t much of a family once her dad moves out. Her mother buries herself in her work editing romance novels, and Giovanna becomes more and more involved with the people in Vittoria’s part of town, including a rough character with a yellow convertible. Then, as if she hasn’t driven her progressive-minded parents crazy enough, she flirts with becoming religious and attending church. Actually, she’s fallen in love, not with Jesus but with her friend Giuliana’s fiance. Of course she has!
Roberto, who is 10 years older, treats her as an intellectual equal, engaging her in philosophical conversations that combine Catholic theology with a critique of capitalism. Giovanna finds herself using her friendship with Giuliana to get close to Roberto. The lying life has surely begun.
As Vittoria puts it with her usual delicacy, Giovanna takes after her. “You’re intelligent, an intelligent little slut like me ... you act like a saint but you like turning the knife in the wound.” This may be overstating the case, but Giovanna is certainly good with snappy comebacks. In one scene, the mother of her two best friends (the woman her father left her mother for) comments what a good influence she is on her daughters because she’s so wise. Giovanna replies, “I’m not wise, but I read a lot of novels.”
Novels like The Lying Life of Adults do indeed contain wisdom, in this case insight into the wild drama of adolescence as seen through eyes of its protagonist. Giovanna is mesmerised and elated by her loss of innocence; Ferrante lets us both share the intensity of this formative experience and be amused by it. As in the Neapolitan novels, and in much of the best first-person fiction, the relationship between telling one’s life story and understanding oneself is central. As long as it is as well-told as Ferrante’s version, it is a story we never tire of.
‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions. £20
Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including ‘First Comes Love’, ‘The Lunch-Box Chronicles’ and, most recently, ‘The Big Book of the Dead’
© The Washington Post
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