Subscriber OnlyBooks

The Lying Life of Adults: A flawed but gripping return

Book review: Elena Ferrante’s first novel since Neapolitan quartet masterfully evokes adolescence

The Lying Life of Adults
The Lying Life of Adults
Author: Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
ISBN-13: 978-1787702363
Publisher: Europa
Guideline Price: £20

“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly,” begins Elena Ferrante’s new novel, her first since the global sensation of the Neapolitan quartet. Twelve-year-old Giovanna, up until then the apple of her father’s eye, overhears him saying that she is “getting the face” of his estranged sister Vittoria.

It is an insult inspired by Flaubert, as we learn in Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (2016). Struck by Emma Bovary’s observation that her daughter Berthe is ugly, Ferrante aspired to “place it somewhere on a page of [Ferrante’s] own”.

The remark sparks in Giovanna an obsession with her appearance and a desperate desire to see her aunt. When her parents, left-wing intellectuals, relent and allow her to visit Vittoria, Giovanna must descend from the upper-middle-class Rione Alto to “the depths of the depths of Naples” – a stone’s throw from the neighbourhood featured in the quartet.

Impervious to her father’s injunction “to put wax in [her] ears like Odysseus”, Giovanna is captivated by her aunt; as their relationship develops, she finds her loyalties torn. Straddling the two worlds, she starts to lie by omission to her parents and “almost inadvertently” invent damning anecdotes about her parents to please Vittoria.


“Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” Giovanna laments. Her father’s denial of his working-class roots is its own misrepresentation. Dialect has been banned from their home, although he slips into it when arguing with his childhood friend, the father of Giovanna’s best friends, Angela and Ida. When a painful revelation exposes the hypocrisy of both men’s marriages, the families are fractured.

What goes on “in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge?” Giovanna wonders. “What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?” Destabilised by her father’s departure, Giovanna stops studying and is held back in school, feeling further humiliated when her parents ask her not to tell anyone she is repeating a year.

Gender roles

Set in the 1990s, the women depicted in The Lying Life of Adults remain entrapped by traditional gender roles – "harassed" by "countless duties, work and domestic" – and beholden to romantic fantasies. Vittoria is devoted to her late married lover, Enzo, visiting his grave and maintaining a relationship with his wife and children. Giovanna's mother, who proofreads romance novels in addition to teaching classics, continues to view her husband through rose-tinted glasses: "He seems like a lying traitor," she tells Giovanna, "but he's honest and in a certain sense even faithful."

Giovanna and her friends have been taught that they “should be proud of being born female”. And yet when her father charms the principal after Giovanna starts a fight at school, she is “ashamed ... to be destined to be treated like that by a man” no matter one’s education or position.

Exquisitely translated, as ever, by Ann Goldstein, Ferrante masterfully evokes the agonies and insecurities of adolescence, which she describes as "a phase of thunder, lightning, storms, and shipwrecks". We witness Giovanna's sexual awakening – from caressing herself "as a reward for the unbearable effort of existing" to intimacy with Angela to "a very violent need for degradation" enacted with boys from Vittoria's neighbourhood.

“Stories about heterosexual relationships interest me when they stage a violation, large or small, which doesn’t conform to canonical representations,” Ferrante once wrote in the Guardian. Giovanna orchestrates her loss of virginity at 16 to a boy she doesn’t care about. Even if the act is unfeeling, it is done on her terms and she is “delighted” after the assignation.

Learning to lie

Is learning to lie a necessary step to adulthood – on the trajectory from “listening daughter” to “beloved woman” – as the book’s title seems to imply? Growing up, which is not a matter of age (Giovanna’s father, for example, remains childlike), requires above all the lucidity not to deceive oneself.

The second part of the novel moves from Giovanna's attempts to fashion a self from competing familial influences to her infatuation with Roberto, a university professor engaged to Enzo's daughter. Unlike Lila's betrayal of Lenù with Nino Sarratore in My Brilliant Friend, given an opportunity to consummate her crush, Giovanna thinks better of it   – wise to the fact that what she craves from him is not sex but respect. By refusing to compete for Roberto, as her mother competes for her father and as Vittoria competed for Enzo, she takes a step towards independence.

Roberto’s area of study is “compunction”, which he explains as a needle pulling “the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence”. Unlike the plotlines of the books edited by Giovanna’s mother, friendship, however fraught, may be more reliable than romance. The novel ends with Giovanna en route to visit Venice with Ida, an aspiring writer, with the two promising one another to “become adults as no one ever had before”.

Early in the book, Giovanna struggles to find the thread of her life story: I am “nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot”, she reflects. It is Ida, we imagine, who will help Giovanna untangle her “snarled confusion of suffering” and coalesce the frantumaglia.

Like the face of an adolescent, The Lying Life of Adults is not flawless: the last line is somewhat wan compared with the bold strokes preceding it, and a talismanic heirloom bracelet used as a plot device is clunky in parts. But Ferrante has once again written a story meeting her own criterion for narrative, in which “the facts of ordinary life – are extraordinarily gripping when read”. I devoured it greedily, in big gulps.

For an author who has fabricated elements of her biography beyond the necessities of protecting her identity, truth may be less about an accurate representation of facts than forging a deeper emotional resonance. “I don’t at all hate lies,” Ferrante admits. “In life I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” Literary fiction, however, “seems to me made purposely to always tell the truth”.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic