Giovanna’s pretty face has changed: it’s turning into the face of an ugly, spiteful adolescent. But is she seeing things as they really are? Where must she look to find her true reflection and a life she can claim as her own?
Giovanna’s search leads her to two kindred cities that fear and detest one another: the Naples of the heights, which assumes a mask of refinement, and the Naples of the depths, a place of excess and vulgarity. Adrift, she vacillates between these two cities, falling into one then climbing back to the other.
Set in a divided Naples, The Lying Life of Adults is a singular portrayal of the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.
The Kindle and hardcover editions of The Lying Life of Adults came out in 2020. The paperback was published in July 2021. This book was lent to me, as so many fantastic books have been, and I read it this autumn.
Some books blow you away with their intensity and verve - this was one of them.The reader is a voyeur privy to Giovanna's inner thoughts. I was in awe of the skilled and fearless way Elena Ferrante created the character of Giovanna. Every word and action made sense. There was no hint of trickery, obfuscation or cliche. I was there in Naples, experiencing the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood along with Giovanna.
I love books that make you wince with the uncomfortableness of what is revealed but which you're compelled to keep reading. The Neapolitan Quartet, starting with My Brilliant Friend, also by Elena Ferrante, had the same effect. The book forces the us to see, hear and consider things life has perhaps taught us to repress. In The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna's brutal and uncompromising Aunt Vittoria tells her to:
'...look at them, your parents, look at them carefully, don't let them fool you...otherwise, you're lost.'
It is this looking which unravels Giovanna's family life. Until now, Giovanna has been sleepwalking around her parents: grateful, conscientious, and accepting of the facade presented to her. When she takes Aunt Vittoria's advice to 'look', she begins to see things that rock her to the core.
The coming of age depicted in The Lying Life of Adults is not sugarcoated, romantic, or triumphant. It is messy, demeaning, awkward, and raw. Some people learn early on to 'look' and distinguish themselves from their parents. For others, it takes years, or even therapy, to discover the family secrets that their parents have concealed. Even if there are no obvious skeletons in the cupboard, the fact that adults have a 'lying life' and are not as omniscient as the child once thought is something that everyone has to come to terms with at some point. I loved the richness of this theme in The Lying Life of Adults. It was woven into the novel subtly and poignantly.
I've never been to Naples, but Elena Ferrante made me believe that I was there. The writing evoked the smells, sounds, and feel of the streets, the school, the church, the cemetery, and the city. The contrast between where Giovanna lived with her parents and the quarter inhabited by Vittoria seemed to represent the two mindsets between which Giovanna oscillates in her journey toward adulthood.
Giovanna's relationships (with her best friends Angela and Ida, Corrado, and others) are full of frustration, physicality, and pain. Her inner voice, which is both self-critical and disparaging of others, never gives Giovanna a moment's rest. After overhearing her father say to her mother that 'she (Giovanna) is getting the face of Vittoria', Giovanna worries endlessly about her physical appearance. This obsession isn't the product of vanity but rather it's an existential threat to her very being. It drives Giovanna to discover who she is and who she might become. Giovanna remarks that the 'connection between anxiety and ugliness consoled me. You can turn ugly because of worries...and if the worries go away you can be pretty again.' But for Giovanna the worries seem to multiply as the book continues, the anxiety and ugliness spiraling in her mind and prickling her skin.
I loved how Giovanna's intelligence, and the curiosity that caused her family's life to unravel in the first place, are also what ultimately redeems her. Despite Giovanna's constrictive adolescence - in which childhood norms fracture around her, and her body is beyond her control - Giovanna's mind is strengthened by the pugnacious Vittoria. Giovanna's growing ability to 'look' and see behind the lies of adults means that life will never be rose-tinted, but it will be congruent. At one point, Giovanna says, 'As for my face, it had no harmony, just like Vittoria's. But the mistake has been to make it a tragedy.' Giovanna emerges from the turbulence of adolescence into a world where adulthood means the acceptance of her own and other's limitations.
This book is transformative both literally and figuratively. As a reader, I witnessed Giovanna's transformation into an adult. As a writer, I felt a visceral thrill of excitement about what is possible when you dig deep into a character's psyche, when the story is the complex permutations of a character's emotions. Giovanna came alive to me, and through Elena Ferrante's writing, I was transformed and inspired.