Books

Elena Ferrante
The Lying Life of Adults

The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, begins with an unmooring. The teenage Giovanna starts to perform poorly in school and, one night, overhears her father, Andrea, compare her to his estranged sister, Vittoria. “Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she’s getting the face of Vittoria,” he tells his wife. Through her parents’ remarks, Giovanna has come to understand her aunt to be a bitter, vulgar woman who resents Andrea’s education and success. In previous books, and most notably in the Neapolitan Quartet, Ferrante has focused on female relationships: friendships, maternal bonds. The Lying Life of Adults sees a more concentrated depiction of individual femininity and its relationship to masculine power.

That overheard moment comes a year after Giovanna has started menstruating. For her, it is a time when “my breasts were all too visible and embarrassed me, I was afraid I smelled bad and was always washing, I went to bed lethargic and woke up lethargic. My only comfort at that time, my only certainty, was that [my father] absolutely adored me, all of me.” Andrea is a high-school teacher and an intellectual. He hosts discussions and debates, mostly with other men, in the family apartment and it is on these occasions that Giovanna sometimes hears him take on a new voice: not the affectionate one he uses when they play together, but a cutting, derisive tone. In entering puberty, leaving girlhood behind, Giovanna seems to discover that not even fatherly love is enough to protect her from this brand of masculine disdain.

While her mother assures her that what she heard was not about her looks but rather a joke between the two parents – intended to indicate an attitude rather than an appearance – Giovanna becomes tormented by her own ugliness. The body is where the betrayals of this book originate: beauty and a perceived lack of it, lust and its internalisation. In order to understand what’s happening to her, Giovanna requests to meet her aunt. Vittoria showers her with affection and criticisms and, as Andrea fears, immediately attempts to turn Giovanna against her parents. Vittoria accentuates, crudely, the similarities between herself and her niece, telling the newly teenaged girl, “You’re intelligent, an intelligent little slut like me, but also a bitch.” But meeting her aunt, seeing her face, is itself too complicated to quell Giovanna’s torment, for “Vittoria seemed to me to have a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity”.

Vittoria, with her crude dialect, frank teachings about sex and love, and tyrannical approach to her family’s boundaries, embodies the storm inside Giovanna. Vittoria resists Andrea’s disapproval and refuses to surrender her passions and desires. Repeatedly, she tells her niece to see through the lies of her parents: “Look at them carefully, your parents, otherwise you’re lost.”

Through entering Vittoria’s community, Giovanna comes to meet other men. And whether they are working class, priests, academics or connected to the Camorra, Giovanna recognises the expectation of devotion and the manipulations that secure it. The initial ambiguity of her father’s comparison puts a small tear in the innocence of Giovanna’s relationship with him; through that tear, more questions spill out about the way femininity is regarded by masculinity. Giovanna makes realisations first about her father – his relationship with her mother, the way he treats other women in society – and then about other men, the teenage boys at school and the young men she meets through her aunt, and finally about the dynamics of Catholicism, the pettiness that exists even in the relationship between God and Christ.

But the most tender tragedy of these realisations, of any adolescent unmooring, is that there’s no longer anyone she believes enough to explain it all to her, to be the authority. After buying her the gospels, Andrea tries to discuss them with Giovanna, but she finds she cannot meet him in the conversation, as much as she’d like to: “I didn’t intend to be sarcastic. Part of me really wished, at that point, to discuss with him the bad that, while you seem to be good, gradually or suddenly spreads through your mind, your stomach, your whole body. Where does it come from, Papa – I wanted to say to him – how do you control it, and why does it not sweep away the good but, rather, coexists with it.”

As in the Neapolitan Quartet, Ferrante remains interested in blurred boundaries and ambiguity. Fans of the quartet will have to adjust to the contraction of this standalone story, which is not operatic in the way of those novels. It depicts a teenage girl’s brain, seeking understanding and overloaded with fragments of significance. Amid this angst, Giovanna escapes by masturbating often and, while she does eventually have sexual encounters, she never particularly embodies any desire for externally derived sexual pleasure. Rather, the moments that she appears most comfortable and tended to in her body are when she shares affectionate embraces and kisses with her friends or her aunt.

Refreshingly, this teenage girl is not a figure condescended to by her author. Encouraged by her aunt to “keep looking”, Giovanna critiques the adult systems around her – systems of devotion, intellect, status, exclusion, sex – and finds it all stifling and phoney. Despite her resistance, she finds herself caught up in the fog of lies and betrayals created by the adults around her. But what is remarkable about Giovanna is that she doesn’t wallow, even though it may seem to others – or even to herself – that she does. Where masculine literature often obscures the intellectual mechanics of its apathetic female teenagers – Salinger’s Franny or Eugenides’ Lisbon sisters come to mind – here we are shown the ways Giovanna is always thinking, working out the knots she knows she has been tied up in, looking for a way out, a means to transcend her body, and the way she is treated because of it.

That initial break, the suggestion that in becoming a woman she might unstoppably start to resemble her aunt in appearance or attitude, echoes throughout the book. It sets off a specifically feminine angst, steeped in adolescent hormones, frustrated, and sharply bright.

Oliver Reeson

Europa, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults".

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Reviewer: Oliver Reeson