- The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions, $32.99.
The Lying Life of Adults is the long-anticipated new novel by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, best-selling author of the Neapolitan Quartet.
The novel tells the story of the coming-of-age of a privileged Neapolitan girl Giovanni, whose childhood comes to an end when she discovers, at the age of 12, that her parents lie to her. The triggering event in her development is when she overhears her beloved father, who all her childhood has said she is beautiful, secretly tell her mother that she is acquiring the face of her aunt Vittoria, whom he has always said is ugly.
This comment shatters Giovanni's feelings of self-worth. She has never met her aunt, her father's sister. At once, she wants to meet her and begins a search for her - first through her parents' photographs, where she discovers her aunt face has been blocked out of family pictures, and afterwards by tracking down where she lives. This involves travelling from the heights of Naples, where Giovanni's parents lead a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, down to the industrial squalor of Naples where Victoria lives.
Desperate to see her aunt's face, Giovanni discovers that Vittoria is lovely and, moreover, that she is delighted to meet her. But Vittoria holds grudges against Giovanni's father and at once begins to detail them to her niece. In so doing, she begins to undermine Giovanni's illusions about who her father is. These discoveries lead Giovanni to hone up her observation skills, and she starts to watch her parents closely and at the same time to conceal much of what she has learned from her aunt. While Giovanni has known her father as intelligent, well-educated a moralist, now she also views him as a hypocrite.
Giovanni proceeds with telling her own lies, downplaying to her parents her fascination with her aunt. She fabricates things about her parents and her aunt, and censors her accounts of each to the other. And, as she becomes more observant of her parents, she discovers another lie that is at the heart of their marriage - that her father has for many years been having an affair with close family friend, Costanza, the wealthy mother of Giovanni's two closest friends.
This discovery adds to Giovanni's angst and at the same time further undermines her opinion of her parents. Disillusioned, she starts to move outwards, to grow. She distances herself from her family and begins to spin more fantasies - or lies - about them and about others in her circle of friends and acquaintances.
Soon Giovanni meets a young man, Roberto, who has escaped from Vittoria's tough neighbourhood to become an academic in Milan. Charismatic and brilliant, Roberto is the object of everyone's desire, including Giovanni's, although she is incapable of recognising this. Roberto is the fiancé of a young friend of Vittoria's, whom Giovanni befriends. Giovanni deludes herself that what she feels towards Roberto is nurturing, a desire to look after him, when the reader knows that it is infatuation.
This adolescent development plays itself out, in rather extravagantly expressed emotions, until eventually Giovanni decides, not long after her 16th birthday, to leave Naples for Venice with her childhood friend, Costanza's daughter Ada.
Through the fabric of this coming-of-age story, Ferrante weaves a white gold bracelet that is passed to - and taken away from - one woman after another. The bracelet ends up in the possession of Giovanni, who deliberately abandons it in the flat where she loses her virginity with a young man for whom she feels little. As she departs from Naples with her childhood friend Ada, Giovanni leaves behind not only the bracelet but also the web of connections that she views as a web of deceit.
Ferrante's first-person narrative conveys a strong sense of the claustrophobia of home life at the beginning of and during Giovanni's adolescence. This is brilliantly done in the main part, although at times it can grow tedious as the reader becomes bogged down up in the minutiae of Giovanni's overwrought emotions.
It is the underlying themes that give this novel its strength. For Ferrante invites the reader to reflect on the complex relationship between the lies adults tell to protect themselves and the lies they tell to protect their children. She also invites the reader to reflect on the thin line between reality and self-delusion, and between truth and fantasy.
Does anyone ever not lie? We lie to others, if not directly, through omission, through selection. We lie to ourselves about what we want, about who we are, and about why we choose particular actions. The Lying Life of Adults is Giovanni's discovery and though it brings her pain, she embraces with all her heart.
- Alison Booth is Professor of Economics at ANU, and a writer. Her latest novel is The Philosopher's Daughters.