SEPTEMBER 1, 2020
ELENA FERRANTE, the best-selling Italian author of The Neapolitan Quartet, four novels that follow a friendship between two women from childhood through adulthood, has garnered increasing international acclaim — from being included in the “New Vanguard,” one of a select group of female writers shifting fiction in the 21st century, to being adapted into a highly regarded HBO television series. Yet her success is also evident in Naples itself: people from all over the world make a pilgrimage to her city to tour the neighborhoods made familiar by her works.
The first novel in the Quartet, My Brilliant Friend, takes place in an unnamed, postwar, working-class neighborhood in Naples frequented by bouts of violence. Only as the narrator Lenù ages does she explore the rest of the city alongside her friend Lila, eventually migrating to other cities before returning home again. On its face, this navigation of place is congruent with class ascension — although Lenù grows up in a poverty-stricken community devoid of expectations for girls to continue schooling, she does, eventually creating an autonomous life.
The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante’s most recent novel to be translated by Ann Goldstein, unexpectedly inverses this journey of upward mobility and challenges its assumptions. The narrative itself is captivating: an up-close portrait of a woman reflecting back on the mysterious years of her adolescence, the transition from child to adult, from youthful ignorance to a deeper, more complicated understanding about her city, those around her, and ultimately, herself. The book begins when an adolescent Giovanna overhears her father tell her mother that she is “very ugly,” comparing her to his estranged sister, Vittoria. This remark extricates Giovanna from her childhood beliefs of her father’s loving nature; knowing his vehement disdain for Vittoria, Giovanna believes herself an embodiment of both “ugliness and spite.”
And so now, Giovanna seeks to get to know her aunt, Vittoria. While Giovanna lives in the uppermost part of Naples, a place of intellectual and cultural stimulation, Vittoria lives in an area reminiscent of the central neighborhood from My Brilliant Friend, portrayed as aggressive and untamed, even vulgar. Vittoria is initially characterized as fitting within this mold. She’s introduced as a maid who left school after fifth grade, ungrateful and selfish, bent on pulling Giovanna’s father back down from the success he’s created for himself. For Giovanna, where Vittoria lives fittingly takes on an aura of “cemeteries, wastelands, fierce dogs, gas flares, skeletons of abandoned buildings.”
Ferrante presents such dichotomies intentionally before doing away with them entirely, reorienting our conceptions. This shift is seen in Giovanna’s exploration of the Naples that her father was raised in and eventually left behind. The supposed brutality and poverty of this neighborhood — the facade of run-down and unkept buildings, an exterior similar to “the agonies of childhood” — is repealed as Giovanna becomes more deeply embedded in its social circles. Vittoria takes her to meet her late lover’s family, and while observing their conversations in Neapolitan, she’s overcome by sadness; her mother tongue is Italian, but they all speak in dialect. Invisible borders separate the Naples Giovanna knows from the one she finds herself in now, making her feel overwhelmingly like an outsider, inhibiting her from attaining what she longs for: “true intimacy.”
Giovanna’s understanding evolves when Vittoria urges her to spy on her parents, telling her that if not, she’ll be lost. The subtext holds the suggestion that we can’t truly know our own lives until we step outside them and carefully observe. By paying close attention, Giovanna learns that her parents — who she once looked at with awe — have been duplicitous in their marriage, leading to a cascade of tumultuous events.
This realization causes anxiety to rise in Giovanna, forcing her to suppress painful questions that give the book its title, questions like: What turns adults into liars? How do they transform from fair and sensible people to “untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles”? Over the course of the novel, Ferrante suggests a circular answer — growing up necessitates disillusionment, and one must adapt to navigate this unfamiliar world. Adults aren’t liars so much as people operating with the disappointments and complexities of life to which children are largely immune.
Giovanna’s story touches upon themes long explored in Ferrante’s works — class, womanhood, and the precarious relationships between men and women. Readers can recognize where Giovanna’s story fits into Ferrante’s authorial preoccupations, but Giovanna’s own perspective is narrower. Her starkest disillusionment goes beyond acknowledging Naples’s many layers, but in realizing her romantic dreams were only dreams. The man she looked up to most, her father, turned out to be morally bruised in a way she cannot unsee or forgive. Sex becomes a tantalizing and overbearing prospect as Giovanna ages, yet what she wants more is something less easily attained.
She is enamored of Roberto — who is engaged to the daughter of Vittoria’s late lover — and is captivated by the respect he shows her, such as looking her in the eyes when speaking. His care is an extreme comfort that she desperately hopes will continue. To read Giovanna grow is to pity her, a girl who talks down to herself and believes herself ugly. In Roberto, she sees all her wants potentially actualized, but to project one’s fantasies onto another person is a form of lying. Giovanna’s fixation on Roberto reveals her own suppression of her deeper need “to be loved” for who she is, something seemingly out of reach.
At the same time, Giovanna’s disappointing relationships with men are contrasted with her relationships with other women, another theme in Ferrante’s works that appears as an antidote to the patriarchal realities of life. The physical intimacy Giovanna shares with her two female friends is sweet and joyous, yet she views it as unremarkable in and of itself. She harbors a wish to translate this intimacy to men, as manifested in Roberto. Perhaps the moment Giovanna truly changes, internalizing her disillusionment and channeling it into growth, is the moment she realizes that’s impossible.
While The Lying Life of Adults bears a resemblance to the Neapolitan Quartet — Naples as a setting, an older narrator looking back on her youth, themes of class divide and women in the shadow of men — it’s a fundamentally different story. Unlike the Quartet, which covers almost an entire lifespan, The Lying Life of Adults is concerned primarily with the years of adolescence. Documenting the processes Giovanna undergoes throughout the novel can then be seen as her effort to come to terms with how she has changed in this period.
Yet Giovanna does not clearly state this reasoning, offering no contextualizing prologue, only a vague introductory paragraph. She notes her writing is meant to provide a story arc, but in reality, she is “nothing that has ever really begun or really brought to completion.” Her goal in writing is thus tenuous and left for the reader to measure. She hopes to see if it “contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.” This search for cohesion remains as ambiguous as the narrator herself, who retains no real insight into her experiences. Lenù’s clearly defined mission in the Quartet — to record her lifelong friendship with Lila as a way to combat erasure — made Ferrante-as-Lenù a force to read, but it’s this lack of corresponding purpose that makes Ferrante-as-Giovanna a slower build.
Much of the dialogue is recounted without punctuation, a fast trend in contemporary fiction, yet at other times it appears with traditional quotation marks in conversations. This craft decision is a signal that what’s being said is of high importance, not only to the story but also to the narrator who is recalling what’s being conveyed. Where relying heavily on exposition at the expense of scene, often prefaced by the phrase “I remember,” Ferrante reminds the reader of the ambiguity and unreliability of memory. The story that makes up The Lying Life of Adults then places less emphasis on Giovanna’s discovery of the multidimensional Naples than on her attempt to transcribe her ascension from child to adult.
This weight on Giovanna’s grappling with the past may prove frustrating for readers, such as when Giovanna recalls hearing Roberto give a speech at church. The reader is not given this scene in present action, and yet it becomes the springboard for Giovanna’s fixation on him. Ferrante’s authorial decision to hinge Giovanna’s story on the recollection of this moment at the expense of the moment itself, however, is masterful rather than withholding; it’s a decision strongly rooted in character. Readers understand that Giovanna isn’t able to truly engage with her past.
The reasoning might lie in the inherent tension involved in revisiting the past, where recording a memory necessitates interrupting the narrative itself. This relates to what Carolyn Forché calls “poetry of witness” in her work, grappling with processing memories as they relate to our behavior as adults. This question of what memory can do — as realized though the act of witnessing — is at the heart of Giovanna’s quest to collect together pieces of who she used to be. Now, of an unspecified age, she confronts her own adulthood by shining a light on the past — though this truth-telling is inevitably another lie. Memories change the further we are from them, and so Giovanna’s recollection is, on its face, a story by a lying adult.
Frantumaglia, a collection of interviews and correspondence by Ferrante defined as “a jumble of fragments,” also sheds light on her thoughts on cohesion in writing. Giovanna wonders if she can counter this idea of the fragmented self by writing down her experiences into a story. However, Ferrante states in Frantumaglia that once a book is finished, “it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole.” In this regard, Giovanna’s goal of being unified is flawed; setting down a narrative is turning away from a stable self that might otherwise have existed. That Giovanna wants her telling to do more than it can is fundamentally compromised.
The uncertainty of whether Giovanna achieved her purpose through writing is reflected in the absence of an epilogue, something utilized in the Quartet to signify closure. She appears unchanged, unable to draw any meaningful conclusions, her sole success merely in recording her experiences. Instead of an ending circling back to Giovanna as the narrator, Giovanna’s story coalesces in her decision to exercise her sexual agency, something she has so far put off. Ferrante’s choice to end the novel there might itself be an answer to Giovanna’s repressed questions underpinning The Lying Life of Adults. From this, it’s possible to gauge that becoming an adult, and the lying that results, is borne from owning one’s actions, not linked to the influences of someone else, however timid or salacious.