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Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, begins with the narrator being called ugly by one man, her father, and ends with her being called beautiful by another. Well, it doesn’t quite end there; another crucial couple of chapters recount what the narrator, Giovanna, does with her understanding of that final compliment. In between those two evaluations of her looks is the meat of a novel that delivers everything that the pseudonymous author’s fans love about her work—or at least I think it does.
Writing about this remarkable novelist often feels like finding your footing on the wet, slippery deck of a ship on a seething ocean. Every reader seems to see something different in Ferrante’s fiction. Her magnum opus, her tetralogy of Neapolitan novels, is typically described as an epic ode to the complexities of female friendship. I don’t really agree. The Lying Life of Adults is a coming-of-age story that appears to have everything to do with the minefields of sex and femininity as confronted by its teenage narrator in what appears to be the 1970s or ’80s. But like the Neapolitan novels themselves, this book derives much of its powerful momentum from the deeper currents of identity and class.
At the age of 12, Giovanna overhears her parents discussing her difficulties at school, which her mother attributes to her age. “Adolescence has nothing to do with it,” her adored father insists. “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.” Nothing could be more terrible. Vittoria, her father’s estranged sister, is a woman in whom, according to Giovanna’s father, “ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.” The coarse, resentful, combative Vittoria caused the alienation between Giovanna’s parents and the rest of her father’s family, and she wishes them nothing but harm. She is “a childhood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls.”
The father’s overheard criticism forms a tiny crumb of grit that threatens to disrupt the cozy rhythms of the family’s life. Giovanna, to her parents’ dismay, becomes convinced that she will inevitably turn into her aunt, whom she has never met. This both horrifies and fascinates her, and she goes poking through a cache of old family photos looking for the face of the woman she will one day become. Someone has already gone through them and blacked out Vittoria’s image with a felt-tip pen. This little drama, so plausible and yet also so absurd, is quintessential Ferrante: It feels both as potently symbolic as a myth and as mundane as a diary entry. Giovanna has arrived at the age when disillusionment with one’s parents dawns and a series of convulsive transformations in body and self commences. Along comes the witchlike image of Vittoria to embody every teenager’s ambivalent urge to blow up their complacent home.
Giovanna demands to meet her aunt, which entails a veritable journey to the Underworld: Vittoria lives in the neighborhood of Pascone, in Naples’ Industrial Zone, a place “the color of scorched earth” where she and Giovanna’s father grew up. He, now a history teacher and “an intellectual fairly well known in the city,” lives in the hills overlooking his slummy origins. It’s not just Vittoria’s disposition that her brother and his wife find distasteful but her menial cleaning job, her lack of education, the dialect she speaks, and her tempestuous, profane outbursts—all hallmarks of the working-class milieu Giovanna’s father came from and would prefer to forget.
As in the Neapolitan novels, in The Lying Life of Adults, education (or “study,” as Ferrante’s characters typically call it), and the ability to talk knowledgeably about books, politics, and thinkers, represents a ticket out of the chaotic and often violent mire of working-class life in Naples. Elena, in the Neapolitan novels, uses her success at school to pry herself out of her old neighborhood and mourns the fate of her brilliant, charismatic friend, Lila, who marries an abusive gangster and ends up working in a factory. Yet Lila retains a vitality and authenticity that Elena has to give up as the price of upward mobility, and Elena never stops missing that. Lila is less a lost friend than the embodiment of an identity Elena has left behind.
If there’s an abiding theme in Ferrante’s work, it’s this choice, an equation whose arithmetic always leaves her heroines at a loss. When Giovanna, who has only known her parents’ life of cultured, secular gentility, meets Vittoria (an encounter that can only take place in Pascone itself), she finds her magnetic aunt has “a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.” The girl is instantly plunged into Vittoria’s maelstrom, a swirl of tragic backstories, reckless driving, teeming extended families, chain-smoking, and priests. Vittoria still weeps over the grave of a lover who died 17 years earlier (she blames Giovanna’s father for separating her from him) and has helped raise his children with the wife he betrayed by sleeping with her.
Of all the witchy powers Vittoria wields in opposition to Giovanna’s parents, none is more impressive than sex. She regales her niece with a detailed description of everything she once did with her lover, then says “Tell your father: Vittoria said that if I don’t fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it’s pointless for me to live.” Her parents’ meticulously modern and age-appropriate program of sex education pales in comparison. As if to confirm that Vittoria comes into Giovanna’s life as a herald of passionate instability and brutal truth, Giovanna’s parents’ seemingly perfect marriage crumbles, revealing a hidden history of infidelity. The novel then takes its narrator through some of the classic phases of adolescent discontent: crushes, surliness, all-black clothes, loud music, bad grades, abject self-loathing, misguided self-sacrifice, the unwitting repetition of parental patterns (symbolized by a bracelet that’s forever changing hands), and melodrama. Soon the truths Vittoria professes to represent come to seem a lot more equivocal.
Ferrante depicts all of this with the utmost seriousness, in a prose style as mercurial as her teenage narrator. Sometimes dialogue is set in the traditional fashion (between quotation marks, with line breaks separating speakers), and sometimes it runs into the rest of the text in a paragraph as if impacted by the force of memory. Some scenes are depicted dramatically, while others are described in lengthy summaries. The novel presents itself as an autobiographical work by Giovanna, written at some later date. “I slipped away,” she recalls on the first page, of the day she overheard her father likened her to Vittoria, “and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
That sounds bad, but can’t the same, really, be said of any life? None of us wholly invents herself, or entirely understands herself, and to be alive is to be, in essence, incomplete and unfinished. The novel’s ending seems to belie its fretful start, as if in the telling of it, Giovanna has figured out how to fashion her experience into a viable story, but there is also just the slightest suggestion that the person writing this tale is not Giovanna after all. The Lying Life of Adults shares with Ferrante’s great Neapolitan novels the sly knack of undercutting whatever straightforward thing it seems to be saying on its surface. Or perhaps, like Giovanna heading out on her journey down to Pascone, we each of us find in Ferrante’s fiction exactly what we’re seeking.