The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

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Because I loved the Neapolitan quartet by Ferrante, I didn’t hesitate to read this new book of hers. Along with intense and detailed consideration of the thoughts and actions of each party to any interaction between characters, her quartet placed those actions and thoughts in historical and moral context. I was disappointed that I didn’t see much of either framework in this one.

But then, the book is narrated by Giovanna, a teenager from age 13 to 16; the story is necessarily limited by her simplistic teenage take on the world. She is the only daughter of teachers and has been a successful student. At 13, she loses interest in school and overhears her father liken her to his despised sister Vittoria. Her father Andrea ended his ties to his family when he moved into the middle class. Of course the teenage Giovanna reaches out to Vittoria, a pretty unpleasant character who lives with her lover’s widow and Margherita’s three children. The obscene speech, but even more importantly, the use of “dialect” rather than Italian identifies them as lower class. Vittoria tells Giovanna she belongs to her father’s family, not just her parents and Giovanna is convinced to skip school to spend time with Vittoria.

She began to observe her parents’ duplicity and the upheaval escalates when her father moves in with the woman he has loved for years, the wife of his best friend Mariano. The two families had been very close, including Giovanna and the two daughters of Costanza and Mariano. Throughout the continuing drama Giovanna is horrified by various adults, meets a young man she instantly falls in love with, and regains her belief in the importance of school. She has some sexual activity with one of Margherita’s sons in a fit of self humiliation. She sometimes acts on a strong feeling of meanness toward her friends. She comes to a different understanding of Vittoria, concluding that if beneath the harshness, she’s soft and foolish, then she has the ugliness of banality. Giovanna involves herself in the love life of Roberto (the man she fell in love with instantly) and her friend Giuliana and nearly sleeps with him. She says, “Betraying Guiliana’s trust, I would in fact become like my aunt when she destroyed Margherita’s life, and why not, like her brother, my father, when he destroyed my mother’s.”

There is a complicated business with a bracelet that is given to one person, then another.  Its shameful origin was revealed, and finally Giovanna abandoned it randomly along with her virginity. The book doesn’t end so much as it stops with this little paragraph:  “The next day I left for Venice with Ida. On the train, we promised each other to become adults as no one had ever had before.”

Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults,  trans. by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2020, 322 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the public library.

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