by Edith Cody-Rice
Anxiously awaited, Elena Ferrante’s successor to her highly successful quartet, the Neapolitan Novels, has finally been published in English. Published in Italian in late 2019, it caused Harry Potter like queues outside bookstores on the day it went on sale. It is being consumed voraciously across Italy and it does not disappoint.
The central character in the Lying Life of Adults is Giovanna, at the beginning of the novel a cosseted bourgeois 12 year old whose parents are both educators, newly middle class. Her father who is a scholar and apparently adores his daughter says one day that “she has the face of Vittoria” referring to his daughter.
Giovanna, who has overheard this remark, is devastated. Vittoria is her father’s estranged sister, who, according to him, has poisoned his existence and resents his rise from the slums of Naples where he was raised, to the position of respected academic. She never passed the fifth grade, still lives in the house where she was raised and works as a maid.
Giovanna determines to meet this gorgon by fair means or foul and eventually with her parents reluctant consent, visits her aunt Vittoria. And so begins a tale of all the ambiguities of life and of adolescence. Vittoria is vital, violent, vulgar and fascinating. She introduces Giovanna to her large extended family that she has in the slums of Naples – warm, loving and welcoming, a family which has rejected her father. But the relationship with Vittoria also stimulates the unravelling of Giovanna’s idyllic family. The fragile underpinnings and lies that hold together the fabric of their life are revealed, not consciously through Vittoria, but through a family bracelet.
And so begins the adolescence of Giovanna and the story is told with all the ambiguity, vitality and intensity of My Brilliant Friend. Giovanna grows out of the obedient, loving daughter into a sullen, confused teenager and we follow her avidly. Many of the themes of the Neapolitan novels repeat themselves: the contrast between the bourgeois and the working classes, the social rise and respectability accorded to study, the violence and veracity of the working classes as opposed to the relatively unemotional and subtle falsehoods of bourgeois life, the friends and family left behind in the slums, the war between generations. Giovanna begins to realize all the ambiguities of adult life that emerge to destroy her image of a secure and idyllic childhood. This is a coming of age novel with a vengeance.
The Lying Life of Adults has an uncomfortable intensity, a tension which is never released, holding the reader in thrall. As in her spectacularly successful Neapolitan Quartet, the strength is in the details the novel recounts and in the inner and outer personal struggles of the characters. The Lying Life of Adults is not, however, quite as satisfying in its trajectory and resolution as the Neapolitan Novels, but still a worthwhile read.
Published in English by Europa Editions
Translator: Ann Goldstein