The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Last year, when I heard that a new Elena Ferrante novel was imminent, I experienced palpable waves of excitement through my body. That’s the kind of writer Ferrante is – she inspires feverish devotion. Like many of my colleagues, I worship her Neapolitan Novels, the quartet set in postwar Naples centred on brilliant friends Lenù (also known as Elena) and Lila. It secured Ferrante’s place as one of the most perceptive writers of women’s psyches, and especially of the highly flammable territory of adolescence. Her first novel in five years, The Lying Life of Adults (with translation again by Ann Goldstein), justifies this belief.
With The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante returns to the city she knows best. But rather than the impoverished neighbourhood of the quartet, here we start up high, in the Vomero, among the educated middle classes in the early 1990s. Giovanna – shy and twelve when we meet her, provocative at sixteen when we depart – has her world unstitched when she overhears her parents compare her to her estranged Aunt Vittoria. Disillusioned, Giovanna descends into the other Naples – poorer, coarser, and more explosive – seeking the truth about her aunt and a mirror in which she might see herself more clearly.
The Lying Life of Adults reads like a raw confession. Ferrante excavates her protagonist’s turbulent inner life with unvarnished prose. Amidst routine adolescent pains, Giovanna also learns that everybody lies, and takes pleasure in the lies she tells; in their power to transform and punish. Ferrante portrays Giovanna’s changing body and mind with a ferocious volatility – her feelings of indignation and shame are rendered so intensely they are practically stifling.
The question persists: how much of Ferrante’s writing is autobiographical? Is The Lying Life of Adults a portrait of the artist as a young rebel or a work of pure imagination? Ferrante sees writing as the communication of truth, but also perhaps the definitive deception. Lies are stories; they give Giovanna’s life shape and order. That’s an intriguing conundrum. The Lying Life of Adults is a book I will return to again and again. It’s a vivid, volcanic masterpiece.