Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is not a book that asks to be liked—at least, not by adults. Adult readers are, after all, just more of those adults who wander through the novel’s pages, telling lies and destroying lives, and therefore the very audience that the novel—at least in part—disavows. Adulthood is a state to be desired for its independence, but also shunned for its hypocrisy, and the adolescent characters in this novel both reject being treated as “little girls” and find little to admire in the grown-ups who surround them. As a novel, The Lying Life of Adults too acts aesthetically like an angry adolescent, pulling readers in and shoving them away, perhaps not quite knowing what it wants, but also wanting it with all of the ferocious intensity of a young girl just entering her sixteenth year.
The novel begins with a fragment of a frame, from a point in time not quite disclosed. The narrator, Giovanna, tells us that “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” But a few pages later we learn that Giovanna has already lied to us—at least in words, if not (if we are to trust Giovanna), the meaning behind them—because what her father, Andrea, has really said is that Giovanna is “getting the face of Vittoria,” his estranged and reviled sister, a sister he has not only erased from his life but metaphorically killed by blacking out her image in family photographs with a felt-tipped pen, enclosing her in dark inky “coffins.”
Her father’s statement leads Giovanna on a quest to meet her aunt, a journey that takes her from the “highest part of Naples” down to the “depths of the depths of Naples,” where her father is from and where his sister and relatives still live. Giovanna’s physical descent into a city that seems another city from the one in which she has always lived is mirrored in her own growing sense that people, like cities, have depths that ought to be explored. This feeling is in part a response to her aunt’s exhortations to carefully observe her parents, which lead to her spying on them and the other adults around her, learning to see beyond the surface of things. What Giovanna discovers are games, invisible threads that hold people together in ways that are otherwise than they initially appear. It hardly seems surprising, then, that when she is physically low, sitting on the floor with her best friends, sisters Angela and Ida, while their four parents sit talking at a dining table, that Giovanna witnesses her friends’ father squeeze one of her mother’s ankles between his. To see clearly, one must literally look under the table.
But the person Giovanna has the most difficulty seeing, despite her constant efforts, is herself. She asks her friends if she is becoming ugly, she expresses amazement at her own actions when she stabs a classmate with a pencil after he publicly makes lewd comments about her body, and when she makes a long train journey to Milan to visit a friend’s fiancé—the first man to whom she confesses to feeling a deep attraction—she initially lies to herself about her own motives. Her self-perception is as distorted and muddled as one would expect of a young person who can only perceive herself through the eyes of others. When Roberto, the man she desires, tells Giovanna she is beautiful, she imagines a conversation where she warns him, “Be careful what you say: my face has already changed, and because of my father I turned ugly; don’t you, too, play with changing me, making me become beautiful.” Even this imagined conversation (“that’s the sort of speech he should like,” she concludes) is Giovanna’s attempt not to see and know herself, but to be seen by Roberto.
As readers, we may perceive more than Giovanna about her self-deceptions and surroundings, given the advantage of our relative distance and individual life experiences. But we may also be especially perceptive, as many characters and themes are already familiar to readers of Ferrante’s earlier works, particularly the four novels that compose the Neapolitan quartet. We recognize intellectual men who appear different from disappointing fathers and then fail to be so, daughters who think critically of their mothers, dolls that bridge relationships between women, and female friendships that are both sustaining and deeply painful. Even the black rectangles that blot out Vittoria recall Lila’s efforts to erase herself from a photo by means of pins and strips of black paper in The Story of a New Name. These echoes can have the disadvantage of making The Lying Life of Adults feel like a shorter, lesser version of the Neapolitan novels, devoid of the historical and political detail that in part makes the quartet so astonishing. But as a novel that focuses on adolescence—and which feels written specifically with the young adult reader in mind—it deftly draws readers into the often insular world of teenagers.
As Giovanna eventually tells us, adolescence renders such context meaningless. Reflecting from the future, she claims that “The time of my adolescence is slow, made up of large gray blocks and sudden humps of color, green or red or purple. . . . Not only does ‘time passed’ become an empty formula but also ‘one afternoon,’ ‘one morning,’ ‘one evening’ become merely markers of convenience.” The detailed historical movements and political debates that characterized Ferrante’s previous set of novels dissolve in the life of one girl over the course of several defining, yet indefinite, years. Many political conversations occur as a murmur in the background of Giovanna’s childhood. She recalls her father’s debates with Mariano, the father of Angela and Ida, but the only thing about these arguments that interested the three friends “was the bad words in dialect that Mariano uttered against people who were famous at the time.” Repeating the dirty words as whispers into each other’s ears, the girls delight in these discussions for the opportunity they afford them to speak forbidden words. The political content of the conversations, however, remains a blurry memory.
Instead, the novel is wrapped up in Giovanna’s attempts to determine her own identity through her relationship to others. As she grows up and expands her search for self-knowledge, elements that appeared important at the novel’s opening become less so: Vittoria, whose face haunts the opening, fades from the text. Giovanna’s focus coalesces around Roberto, and she spends more and more time with his fiancée, her friend Giuliana, rather than Vittoria. Giovanna’s attachment to Giuliana mirrors a game she used to play with Angela, where they would place a doll that “seemed alive and happy” between their entwined legs and rub, giving each other pleasure. Giuliana later acts the doll in Giovanna’s attempts to become closer to Roberto so that even when the two women are “very close—hips touching” they are also “in reality separate” as Giovanna hears not Giuliana’s anguished monologue in her ear, but Roberto’s reassuring voice.
Such mediated connections are common in The Lying Life of Adults, muddling, rather than clarifying, various relationships: Angela tells Giovanna that she began dating her boyfriend only because she thought Giovanna liked him; Vittoria often gives Giovanna messages meant to wound her father; and, most explicitly, a “bad-luck charm” bracelet moves between women, linking them not only to each other but to a painful past. The bracelet, twice stolen by men from one woman to give to another, haunts the women who find it equally desirable and oppressive. Despite Giovanna’s earlier claim that “Objects aren’t guilty,” her final abandonment of the bracelet suggests that she, too, ultimately rejects the history it represents and the tangled web such relations make. Giovanna’s refusal of the bracelet affirms a connection between women that is untainted by the cruelties of both men and women, and the novel ends with her departure to Venice with Ida. Ida, who confesses to Giovanna through a short story to “a long unfulfilled desire” to be included in the physically intimate relationship that Giovanna and Angela shared, appears to have finally found what she sought. As the two young women leave home, they promise each other “to become adults as no one ever had before.”
For Giovanna-the-narrator in the novel’s present, the project of The Lying Life of Adults is to help her see herself as she truly is, something she never quite fully achieves within the story she tells. The dark coffins that cover Vittoria and her lover Enzo in her father’s photographs are the ones from which Giovanna herself appears to want to escape, to successfully scrape off in a way that she is unable to do with the photographs she finds hidden away. If she has the “face of Vittoria,” then it is her own features that her father has so carefully covered up with black lines; the novel itself is an effort to reassemble those inked lines in a way that would give her back her face and story, one line—one sentence—at a time.
New York: Europa Editions, 2020. 336 pp. $26.00.