There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else. My favourite Ferrante book remains The Days of Abandonment, but die-hard Ferrante fans will still want to read this book.
Life changes for 13-year-old Giovanna the day she overhears her father comparing her looks to that of his much hated and famously ugly sister Vittoria. Confused and hurt, Giovanna who has always adored her father, becomes determined to seek out the ostracised Vittoria. This act of rebellion marks the beginning of Giovanna’s coming-of-age and loss of innocence. If there’s one depressing lesson that sticks, it’s that:
Lies, lies adults forbid them yet the tell so many.
For me, the attraction of Ferrante’s books has always been her ability to put herself in other people’s shoes, be it a jealous seven-year-old girl, a woman scorned or, as in this case, an unmoored teenager. She’s so good at it that her books always have an autobiographical feel to them. Is this something she’s been through herself? We’ll probably never know. Ferrante is famously protective of her identity.
‘Too gossipy’, has been a recurring complaint against Ferrante’s books. True, there are betrayals, forbidden passion, unrequited love, but isn’t life a bit like that sometimes? But it’s also true that if it hadn’t been for Ferrante skill as a writer, her vivid descriptions of Naples, her ability to keep a finger on the pulse of her characters, her reflections around class, education and misogyny, her books would never have achieved the success they rightly have.
The Lying Life of Adults is not her finest, I still think the more compact The Days of Abandonment is better, but if you’re craving a fix of raw passion and intrigue, Neapolitan style, combined with a fine portrayal of a teenage awakening, this book might be for you.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante is published by Europa Editions, 322 pages.