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The Lying Life of Adults

Review

The Lying Life of Adults

written by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

At a pivotal moment of physical and emotional growth, and as she faces some academic struggles for the first time in her life, 12-year-old Giovanna Trada overhears her father, Andrea, tell her mother, Nella, that she is “getting the face of Vittoria.” Vittoria Trada is Andrea’s much-reviled sister, a figure Giovanna believes to be hideous inside and out. Therefore, she is convinced that her father has labeled her ugly and terrible.

This comment, not meant to be heard by Giovanna, is the catalyst for the psychological action in Elena Ferrante’s new novel, THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS. Her Neapolitan Quartet has made her a literary superstar, and this latest work is sure to solidify that reputation. It is a compellingly rendered coming-of-age story with complex characters set in the winding streets and timeless neighborhoods of Naples.

"This is a novel as intense and ferocious as it is gentle and poignant. Ferrante’s prose is lovely and frank, and her characters are nuanced and real, not always likable."

Once Giovanna hears her father compare her to his hated sister, she becomes obsessed with Aunt Vittoria. Finally, her parents give her permission to meet Vittoria, and she travels to the rough and poverty-stricken neighborhood where her father grew up. There she finds her aunt --- fierce, passionate and mercurial --- living a life with the widow and children of her dead ex-lover, Enzo. Giovanna is immediately drawn into Vittoria’s orbit and into the lives of Enzo’s wife, Margherita, and her three children: Guiliana, Tonino and Corrado. Her relationships with Vittoria’s adopted family coincide with her break from her parents, which perhaps is not unexpected for a girl her age, and her growing distance from her childhood friends, Angela and Ida.

As the novel progresses, the complicated connections among all the characters are revealed, and readers find Giovanna trying to negotiate those connections even as she explores her place in the world and her identity. Her home with Nella and Andrea, who are close friends with Angela and Ida’s parents, is one of learning and ambition, literature and ideas. With Vittoria, life is about religion, emotion and sexuality. Giovanna is drawn first to Corrado and then to his friend, Rosario, before setting her romantic sights on Guiliana’s fiance, Roberto. An up-and-coming intellectual who has left Naples for Milan, Roberto restores the confidence shattered by her father’s words and deeds by encouraging her intelligent thoughtfulness and honoring her person. Still, the type of physical release promised by young men like Rosario and the romantic couplings in which her friends engage both attract and repel her.

Over the years covered in the novel, Giovanna explores various attractions and repulsions --- those she feels for her parents, her lifelong friends, her aunt and even her new friends. All the while, she matures into a young woman who learns to balance her ardent feelings with a measured agency.

In THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS, Ferrante contrasts class and worth, religion and faith, fidelity and secrets, and sexuality and virginity as ways to both lose and gain power. Page after page, Giovanna comes to realizations that are dire and impactful about the world of adults, all the while becoming an adult herself. This is a novel as intense and ferocious as it is gentle and poignant. Ferrante’s prose is lovely and frank, and her characters are nuanced and real, not always likable. It wrestles with the central question of what it means to be beautiful in all the various senses of the word and will leave readers with much to contemplate and consider.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 18, 2020

The Lying Life of Adults
written by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions
  • ISBN-10: 1609455916
  • ISBN-13: 9781609455910