The Lying Life of Adults

by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

reviewed by Sophia X. Gatzionis

Elena Ferrante’s new novel The Lying Life of Adults follows its narrator, Giovanna, as she navigates the first few years of adolescence in 1990s Naples. Growing into a body that feels dangerous and unfamiliar—at times repulsive, at others powerfully provocative—Giovanna finds herself torn between truth and lies, and fashions herself out of both. The Lying Life of Adults ultimately weaves the tangled and invisible threads of family and friendship into webs of resentment, lust, obsession, and neglect.

“Two years before leaving home,” the novel begins, “my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” In Giovanna’s mind, her perceived ugliness is to blame for the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and her father’s abandonment sharpens her sense that she is a pawn in adult relationships. One way these relationships manifest is in love triangles. They show up over and over again in this novel, as Giovanna traces the secret and often illicit conversations of adults: the whispered exchanges that take place behind closed doors and on the telephone; the silent meanings of feet touching under a table. More than anything, this novel is about learning the language of adulthood. “Oh what a story,” Giovanna thinks to herself when her father’s estranged sister, Vittoria, tells her about a past, doomed love affair. “Oh to learn to speak like that.”

Ferrante’s fairly small cast of characters expands as we read. Part of the book’s power lies in this opening up of a childhood world. When Giovanna meets Vittoria, she is led out of the comfort of the familiar into a larger, more stratified Naples. Galling and petty, but also openhanded, clearsighted, and brutally direct, Vittoria is an exceptionally drawn character. Ferrante is at her best when she is reading people. She holds her characters up to a light almost harsh in its honesty. It is a harshness that borders on insolence—the kind that Giovanna sees in her aunt’s face, which is “very ugly and very beautiful at the same time.”

Ferrante’s way of writing about the pleasures and tortures of young womanhood reminds me of Alice Munro, whose Dear Life is on the author’s recent list of favorite works by female authors. Ferrante shares the Canadian writer’s preoccupation with the transactional qualities of love and hatred, intimacy and alienation. Like Sally Rooney’s Normal People, another novel on the list, Ferrante’s book is written with an acute awareness of how the dynamics of social and economic position play out in one’s teenage years.

Both of Giovanna’s parents are teachers, and books (especially the Gospels) play an important role in the novel. Giovanna’s storytelling explores what it feels like to be branded as a reader and a thinker by adults who are rarely willing to meaningfully engage with you. Her narrative voice consistently questions the power of authority. With savage pleasure, Ferrante shows how teenagers dismantle the ideals of parents and God. “Sometimes he acted the part so well that I forgot I didn’t believe him,” Giovanna says of her father after realizing that her life no longer revolves around him.

The Lying Life of Adults is enamored and disillusioned at the same time; that is the core of its curious and magnetic perspective. Giovanna is simultaneously immersed in adolescence and far past it. Ann Goldstein’s translation—which retains the feeling of the Italian and remains, even in English, somewhat foreign and unfamiliar—highlights the text’s ability to evoke our youth while keeping us at a distance.

What audience is this novel written for? Provocative, explicit, alienated, and alienating, Ferrante’s book seems to be participating in a wider push to reconsider what we can, or should, expect teenagers to consume. Both the hardest book to read and the easiest, The Lying Life of Adults is a cruel and deeply compelling novel. Ferrante forces her readers to look at a part of their lives that most people bury deep and try to forget. But it is impossible to forget about Giovanna. You can try to stop thinking about it, but The Lying Life of Adults will stay with you long after your first read.

Published on January 29, 2021