The Lying Lives of Adults
By Elena Ferrante (tr by Ann Goldstein) Europa Editions, 322pp, £20/$26
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” So begins Elena Ferrante’s 2004 novel The Days of Abandonment, plunging the reader into a domestic drama with a perfectly understated first line. In her highly anticipated new novel, and the first since the extraordinary international success of the “Neapolitan” novels, Ferrante again begins with a striking opening sentence. Her narrator recollects that “two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly”. This memory sets the teenage Giovanna on a path of self-discovery, starting from the home of her intellectual atheist parents in the heights of Naples, then going “down, down, down” into the “industrial zone”. There she meets a series of characters from her father’s past, a past he has rejected in order to rise to the top of the intellectual circles he currently inhabits.
In the scruffy narrow streets of this other Naples, Giovanna meets her father’s sister – an uneducated maid, always smoking, who speaks in coarse dialect peppered with expletives and gradually draws her niece into her own Naples.
Ironically, it is in this apparently sordid underworld that Giovanna is first exposed to the Church. She attends Mass with her aunt; takes up prayer despite lacking any real belief; and develops a crush on Roberto, a gifted young university professor, as he gives a talk at her aunt’s church. Ferrante tracks Giovanna’s descent from one Naples to another in richly symbolic language, imbuing it with a quasi-spiritual significance. The descent into this underworld becomes irresistible to Giovanna, who finds colourful and intriguing possibilities unavailable at home: “I was euphoric, as if the possibility of evil … gave me an unexpected exuberance,” But Catholicism is not a straightforward route to redemption; it is merely another set of values – another narrative – that Ferrante has Giovanna critically explore in her quest for self-knowledge.
Sex features strongly – perhaps too much so for some readers – as does the male gaze. The novel is bookended by two instances of Giovanna’s looks being assessed by a man whom she admires. First her father’s damning assessment, and later, Roberto’s praise of her beauty. In between, Giovanna obsesses over her developing body and changing face, looking for certainty as to the adult she will one day become, and engaging in perfunctory sexual experiences that are at once self-affirming and repulsive. Ferrante’s choice of an unreliable first-person narrator helps her to describe this melting pot of emotions: we feel the disconnection between the experience and the recollected version of it.
As the title suggests, lies and story-telling are central to the novel. Giovanna is shocked to discover that her intellectual parents have themselves lied. They are engaged in sordid affairs: in one scene, Giovanna is confronted in the course of a dinner with the sight of Mariano, a married man and family friend, squeezing her mother’s ankles between his own under the dinner table.
After being implored by her aunt to “look, look, look”, Giovanna sees that her parents too, for all their intellectual pretensions, are individuals who tell their own stories; their own lies. She realises that to be a liar is to be a storyteller, and that this offers a means of controlling one’s own story. It is perhaps no coincidence that Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of a writer who has fiercely guarded her anonymity.
This is a coming-of-age novel in which Ferrante once again deftly captures the female adolescent voice, but it is also larger than that; it is a novel of ideas. Through her teenaged narrator’s battle to come to terms with her transition into adulthood Ferrante grapples with the universal themes of sex, religion, belonging and the power of story-telling to make, find or conceal one’s self.