Ferrante focuses on adolescence and class divisions
Published in the Witness (08/03/2021)
The Lying Life of Adults
Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
When she is 13, Giovanna overhears her father telling her mother that she, Giovanna, is ugly. And not just that the pretty child is turning into an ugly adolescent, but that she is getting the face of her hated aunt Vittoria.
The reader can guess we are not in the warm, fuzzy world of coming-of-age where after a bit of angst, all will be well. This is Elena Ferrante, after all, the author of the brilliant Neapolitan quartet, who has already shown us penetrating insights into the adolescent mind.
Giovanna has grown up believing the lives of her calm, intellectual parents are what lives should be, lived in the peaceful, middle-class world on the hills above Naples. She is loved and cared for, and she trusts. But her frail self-confidence is shattered by what she has heard, and she determines to visit the aunt – her father’s sister - she has been brought up to believe is ugly, vindictive and sadistic. Vittoria lives in the lower-class, low-down part of Naples, a world Giovanna has never encountered.
Giovanna meets Vittoria, and reaches the seminal moment we all have to encounter when we realise not all adults are like our parents and their friends.
Hot on the heels of that discovery comes another one. Giovanna’s parents, like everyone, have feet of clay and her illusions are brutally shattered. Her parents may be intelligent, but they can behave with profound stupidity. All this comes at a time when she is beginning to explore her sexuality, and it makes for a heady mix of emotions.
Not only does The Lying Life of Adults deal with adolescence, but it is also a sharp look at class divisions. Giovanna’s father originally came from the lower-class world his sister still inhabits, and that he has consciously rejected. Giovanna’s initially timid exploration of this world gives her another insight into the lying life her parents lead. But she comes to realise lies are not the prerogative of one class or the other.
It’s a gritty novel. There is humour but there is also a great deal of sadness, and the ending offers no resolution. Maybe Ferrante is planning a sequel. I, for one, would be delighted.
- The Lying Life of Adults is published locally by Jonathan Ball Publishers.