Italian author Elena Ferrante, internationally famous for her Naples-based “Neopolitan Quartet” of novels, is recently out with the novel The Lying Life of Adults, her first in five years. To read it is to escape to another time and place ( early 1990s; Naples) and the mind of an adolescent girl.
GiovannaTrada has just turned sixteen when she tell us, at the opening of the story:
Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.
If you’re wondering if the father’s leaving is connected to what he said, it is. But not in the ways you might think.
As the only child of comfortably middle-class parents–high school teachers and intellectuals–Giovanna was smart and pretty as a little girl, and much adored by her father. But at twelve, with all the changes adolescence brings, she’s feeling awkward about her body and struggling in school. Her father’s remark sends her into a head-spin. She wasn’t meant to overhear it, but there’s nothing her parents can say to reassure her. The only way she can make sense of it is to go see Aunt Vittoria for herself.
What we soon learn, despite what Giovanna told us at the beginning, is that her father actually said, “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.” Vittoria is a name that looms large in Giovanna’s mind. Her father has had nothing to do with his sister in many years, and Giovanna has no memories of her aunt. Her father (or possibly her mother) has even blacked out Vittoria’s face from every old photo in their house. “Vittoria was like the name of a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her.”
Much to her surprise, her father allows her to go see her aunt and drives her there himself. They live in the heights, but to see Vittoria, they have to go into the “depths of the depths of Naples.” Vittoria still lives in the apartment where she and the father grew up, in the Industrial Zone. On a map, it’s the color of scorched earth. Vittoria is everything her parents have described–vulgar and spiteful and larger-than-life–but she’s also surprisingly beautiful.
So begins the on-again, off-again relationship between Giovanna and her aunt, who works as a maid and left school in the fifth grade. Giovanna learns her father was once an adored older brother, until he destroyed the great love of Vittoria’s life–a married man with three children. Vittoria tells Giovanna that she needs to watch her parents closely, that they are not what they seem. When she takes this advice, she does see something unusual. But it’s not quite what it seems.
Right now, in 2020 in the world of covid, we seem to be living in the Age of Mendacity, where truth is elusive, in part because so many people of influence dispute science and argue over the facts. In that sense, it’s a pleasure to get lost in a novel that takes place near the end of the last century, where the lies Giovanna is living with are strictly within the family. Or among close relations. Adolescence is fraught with messy conflict, but the adult author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) captures it magnificently. Giovanna is a memorable character, as are her parents and Vittoria and others in her expanding orbit.
The novel ends abruptly (a little too abruptly?) but it’s the kind of ending that keeps you wondering what kind of adult Giovanna will become–or keep becoming. Nothing is static. The world keeps changing and so, apparently, must we.