The Lying Life of Adults. By Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein.Europa; 324 pages; $26 and £20.
FIFTEEN MILLION readers have waited five years for a new novel by the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, author of a riveting quartet of stories set in Naples that shot her to global fame. “The Lying Life of Adults”, a dark tale, does not disappoint. Yet it also demands more of Ms Ferrante’s many fans by probing even more painfully the oppression of women that drove her explosive Neapolitan saga.
Like “My Brilliant Friend”, the first in that series, this is a story of growing up: the universal struggle to separate from the family and establish a self. Ms Ferrante’s genius lies in the laser focus she brings to bear on female experience. In often lacerating detail, she portrays their protracted battle to define themselves independently of men.
Giovanna is 12, secure in the love of her intellectual parents until a question disrupts her world. Is she or is she not “very ugly” like her father’s estranged sister Vittoria, “a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her”? The search for an answer leads Giovanna to the depths of Naples, and the poverty-stricken neighbourhood from which her father escaped. Like the Neapolitan quartet, this story revolves around tension between the subterranean working class and the heights occupied by wealthy intellectuals. Yet on this smaller canvas it focuses on male entitlement and the female rage that results—and the lies about both that men and women tell themselves.
Like Elena and Lila, Ms Ferrante’s world-famous heroines, Giovanna and her aunt Vittoria represent those with and without education. Vittoria is an older version of the brilliant and irresistible Lila, drawing Giovanna into the violent world of her neighbourhood. Yet unlike Lila, Vittoria is repellent, distorted by a life of loss and stunted opportunity. The men in this book, too, are nearly all “animals” who want only sex and callously upend women’s lives. When a family rupture lays bare her own father’s lies, Giovanna plunges into a crisis of self-hatred in which she makes herself as ugly and obnoxious as possible.
This abasement is painful to witness. Readers inhabit the obsessive, anxious mind of an adolescent girl, see-sawing between pride and degradation. When a male professor takes an interest in her, redemption seems nigh. Naturally, Ms Ferrante rejects the romantic template. But Roberto is, instead, the first man to look at Giovanna’s eyes and not her breasts. From him she gains not love, but understanding. “I felt like laughing,” she reports at 16. “I had been deceived in everything…but the mistake had been to make it a tragedy.” What she really wants is to be respected, she concludes: to feel she is “much more than a cute or even beautiful small animal with whom a brilliant male can play a little and distract himself”.
Fans will appreciate the many parallels with Ms Ferrante’s earlier books. Stark reality coexists with magical objects, in this case not dolls or shoes but a gem-studded bracelet that propels the plot. Ms Ferrante’s unique style—again superbly captured by Ann Goldstein’s translation—is as urgent as ever, proceeding by confrontation and volcanic self-revelation, with little traditional description. Ms Ferrante’s women are angry, prickly, intelligent and exhausted by the effort of trying to exist in a patriarchal world. So fundamental a truth is a challenge few writers take on. But then, few are as able, as Ms Ferrante has put it, “to tell without distortions what I know”. ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “The second sex”