Reviewed by Ruth Latta
The Lying Life of Adults
by Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein
November 2020, Hardcover, ISBN: 9781609455910, 336pages,
Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, could have been called “The Bracelet” after a key motif in the story, for the half-truths and lies about it tie in with the overall theme of fictional creation. The bracelet changes hands many times and every new revelation that Giovanna hears about it shows the dishonesty of yet another grown-up.
Though set in Naples, The Lying Life of Adults is not about friends rising from the slums, as in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Nor is it about the value of returning to one’s roots. Giovanna, the narrator-protagonist, who is twelve to sixteen during the novel’s time frame, is being raised in a progressive way by her middle-class, secular, intellectual parents. At twelve, going through puberty, she feels vulnerable and uncertain about herself. Her slump in schoolwork leads to a discussion with her parents. After the conversation is over, she hears her father say to her mother, “Adolescence has nothing to do with it; she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”
Giovanna is shocked that her loving and supportive father would compare her to his ugly sister, whom her parents speak of as a “monstrous being who taints and infects everyone who touches her.” Papa, a high school teacher and Marxist intellectual, has risen from a Naples slum and rarely sees his family of origin. He claims that vindictive Vittoria, a cleaner, has always been jealous of his success. Giovanna can’t remember ever seeing her.
Now, anxious to see if she looks like Vittoria, Giovanna goes through the family photos and finds someone blacked out with felt pen in all her father’s family groups. She learns from her mother that Vittoria has never forgiven Papa, when, almost twenty years ago, he intervened in his capacity as elder brother to stop Vittoria’s affair with a married man. This man, a police officer named Enzo, returned to his wife and children, dying of natural causes three months later.
When Giovanna asks to meet her aunt, her father drives her to his old neighbourhood and waits for her in the car. Vittoria, who is striking but dated in appearance, immediately starts to criticize Giovanna’s parents. Then she asks why Giovanna isn’t wearing the bracelet she gave her when she was born. Giovanna has never heard of any bracelet, nor has her mother. Nevertheless, when she next sees her friends Angela and Ida, she makes up a vivid description of a bracelet her aunt gave her which is too beautiful and valuable to wear.
On subsequent outings with Vittoria, to visit Enzo’s grave, and to a church bazaar, Giovanna learns that Vittoria is an honorary aunt to Enzo’s three children, now young adults in their late teens and early twenties. After Enzo’s death, Vittoria offered her help to his widow, Marghereta, and the two have become friends.
In vulgar street-language, Vittoria tells Giovanna that Enzo was sexually irresistible and the great love of her life. This adds to Giovanna’s accumulation of knowledge about sex, though in a negative way. When she meets Enzo’s children, she likes his daughter and his gentlemanly Tonino. His other son, Corrado, in his twenties, is foul in words mind and body, yet bold enough to make moves on a twelve year old.
Giovanna becomes increasingly disillusioned with the adult world. At a dinner with Mariano and Costanza, Angela and Ida’s parents, she sees Mariano trying to play footsie with her mamma. Later, her father moves in with Costanza. Teenagers also lie; Giovanna lies all the time, but she doesn’t believe the stories she has made up. Teens can also be duplicitous, as when Angela, knowing that Giovanna likes Tonino, starts a relationship with him. Adult duplicity is worse, though, because grown-ups make up unimaginative, unoriginal lies and worse, believe them. After Papa deserts Mamma, she continues to speak positively about him. As an editor of romance novels, she puts positive versions of Papa in her revisions.
Eventually Giovanna meets an adult who seems honest. Through Vittoria’s church she hears of Roberto, a childhood pal of Tonino’s, who moved with his parents to Milan and is now a promising young academic, authoring scholarly articles on such religious matters as moral scrupulousness. He is engaged to Enzo’s daughter, Giuliana, a receptionist, and comes back to Naples to see her. On one such occasion, Giovanna meets him and is impressed by his ability to bring out the best in everyone.
Giuliana, who admires Giovanna as a budding intellectual, is happy to include her on coffee dates with Roberto, because Giovanna makes her feel smart by association. Roberto is impressed with Giovanna, and soon replaces her father as the adult with whom she discusses big issues. With Giuliana’s approval, he says Giovanna is “beautiful”. When she asks him for guidance he tells her to drive out pride, treat others kindly and fairly, and honour her parents, though that may be hard.
Giuliana confides her fear of losing Roberto to some intellectual girl, so Giovanna agrees to come to a dinner with Roberto’s colleagues to offer Giuliana support amid the “self-important babble of the cultivated.”. In her heart, though, she wants Roberto for herself.
For much of the novel, Giovanna is alone, with no one on her wave length. Other characters form pairs: Enzo’s “co-widows” Vittoria and Marghereta; sisters Angela and Ida; Papa’s “two wives”, Mamma and Costanza; and Papa and Roberto, who are two sides of the same coin. In the end, Giovanna abandons the bracelet, loses something else that she has been wanting to lose, and joins forces with a young writer who constructs fictions that reveal truths.
About the reviewer Ruth Latta is working on, A Girl Should Be…, a stand-alone sequel to her 2019 novel, Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org)