Elena Ferrante’s fiction is not for the weak. It isn’t for the ones who want happy endings, or maybe even believe in them. That doesn’t mean Ferrante’s characters aren’t happy or don’t aspire to be happy. If anything, because they are so broken, they want nothing else but that, or so it seems.
The Lying Life of Adults is nothing like the Neapolitan quartet, which spanned more than half a century in the lives of two friends. The Lying Life of Adults is about adolescence and not the dreamy, rainbow-eyed, unicorn believing kind of adolescence (if you read Ferrante, you know you will never get that anyway), but a time when lies and deception loom large, and growing up means so much more than just changes of the body.
The book opens amongst the educated, the elite, the affluent, and the ones who believe more in the nature of science than God (that also is a wonderful sub-text to the book). Giovanna’s father is all of the above and more. He is the center of her world whose validation is needed at every step in her life. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s friends Angela and Ida are daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. Everything is bright and happy in their bourgeoise world, until the day Giovanna overhears a conversation between her parents, which is also the start of the book.
“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.”
The story moves on from here, where we as readers are introduced to Giovanna’s aunt, her father’s estranged sister Vittoria, who he compares her with – the aunt that her father has detested for the longest time. Ferrante then turns the story on its head by moving from the affluent spaces of Naples to the not so affluent space, the dingy, the dirty, the filthy industrial neighbourhood where her aunt lives. Giovanna decides to meet her aunt and see for herself how ugly she is and whether she will grow up to be this person or not. From here on, Vittoria becomes a permanent fixture in Giovanna’s life and things change drastically.
Giovanna lies. Her parents lie. Her friends’ parents aren’t telling the truth either. The entire construct and fabric of her life falls apart as incidents are played out, and the past is brought to life. No one is perfect. No one is a villain. Maybe they all are the villains in their lives, and try as they might, they cannot change that.
Jewelry, mirrors, dolls, the smell, pleasure of adolescence and the need to derive it at any cost, education as a means of climbing the ladder – of proving your worth to others, keep constantly reappearing in the book. Ferrante shocks you with the familiar. There is no redemption for anyone. Characters accept the cards handed out to them, to point of them unabashed about their situations. It is what it is.
Body image in The Lying Life of Adults is its own beast. We encounter it through almost every major and minor character and how they deal with it, is well not up to the people around them. Ferrante somehow ensures that it is only the readers that can feel pity, empathy, or any kind of emotion for Giovanna, Angela, Ida, or anyone else. In their interactions with each other, these people are harsh, cold, mean, and maybe rightly so.
Ann Goldstein’s translation from the Italian as always is spot-on. You forget it is a translation, and most often than not you are reminded of the beautiful turn of phrase, or the clinical way in which emotions are dealt with, or the way somethings aren’t said and get stuck in characters’ throats – that you realise the beauty of a translation that makes you see this, feel this, and experience it to the optimum.
“The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that,” Giovanna’s told, when she points out that adults she is learning to lie to have been doing that to each other all their lives . “Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” she observes.
There is a lot going on in the book. You get used to it as a reader. The book however is deeply moving, brutal, honest, wise, holding its ground – balancing itself in the beautiful and ugliness of everyday life, manifesting itself on the body, and making sense of it all through the women – old, middle-aged, and young, one lie after another.
Thank you Europa Editions for the review copy.