Many people reading this review will already know Elena Ferrante’s work, having devoured her novels known as “The Neapolitan Quartet:” “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” and “The Story of the Lost Child.” They will want to know if this book reaches the same level as those do, if they can anticipate another immersive read about Italian social castes and the women negotiating them in the 20th century.
Others reading this review might wonder what all the fuss is about, the “Ferrante Fever” mentions, the TV adaptation, the millions of copies sold in dozens of languages. What makes these books about women and social class so popular? Why do so many people want to know the reclusive author’s real name? Who is this Elena Ferrante, and why has she become a global phenomenon?
The answer to the first group of readers’ concerns is simple. The answer to the second, a bit more complicated. First, however, a slight bit of plot summary and differentiation from the Neapolitan Quartet.
We’re back in Naples, its upper-middle-class zone this time, where 15-year-old Giovanna lives with her parents, both teachers. A few years earlier, a compliant and studious Giovanna overheard her father tell her mother a disparaging remark about Giovanna’s appearance. Her misunderstanding of that remark sets in motion a teenage-girl odyssey, as she insists on traveling from her family’s leafy, sedate neighborhood down to her Aunt Vittoria’s flat in the Vomero, one of the city’s grittiest sections.
Vittoria combines the worst attributes of Miss Havisham, Medusa, and Mrs. Rochester in her nostalgia for her dead lover Enzo, her fury at her family for turning away from her, and her cruel hold over Enzo’s widow and three children. She functions as a kind of Circe for Giovanna (whom she calls Giannina; in the working-class communities of Ferrante’s novels, nearly everyone has at least one, if not three, nicknames). Vittoria enchants her long-lost niece with stories both of her own life and of Giovanna’s parents, stories that begin the protagonist’s initiation into the life of the title, the realm in which adults lie to themselves and each other as they get what they want, despite conventions, faith, and kindness.
On their first day together, Vittoria chivvies Giovanna for not wearing the “very valuable” bracelet she gave her niece at birth. When Vittoria laments the fact that the gift has not been received, she knows what she’s awakening. Without spoiling any of the novel’s revelations, the bracelet and its ownership becomes a sort of breadcrumb trail that leads to lie after lie — or at least things that grownups hide from children. The adults in Giovanna’s world, especially the polished professionals of her family’s acquaintance, may all know about an infidelity, yet never acknowledge it. Vittoria, on the other hand, celebrates her long extramarital affair with Enzo. She basically keeps house for his widow and their children. Early on, it is Vittoria who gives Giovanna the girl’s first direct advice about sex, advice so blunt and vulgar that it shimmers with truth. “Until that moment,” Giovanna says, “no one had displayed to me — just to me — an adherence to pleasure so desperately carnal, I was astounded.”
Along with her best friends, Angela and Ida, and her new friends in the Vomero, Giovanna must figure out the secrets of adult life, which at first they believe to be all about sex. Slowly, each season in Giovanna’s high-school career teased out as if each semester encompasses a decade, Ferrante shows how challenging it is for any young woman to determine how to dress, let alone how to integrate academic ambition with desire, and parental perfidy with personal morality. When Giovanna eventually spots the bracelet, “of white gold, with a flower whose petals were diamonds and rubies,” it is on a completely unexpected person’s wrist. However, its symbolism (shiny, with a red bloom) is anything but unexpected, and as the bracelet passes from one woman to another, we come to see the value different kinds of sexual connections hold in Giovanna’s Neapolitan world.
The answer to avid Ferrante fans: Yes, this book lives up to its author’s reputation, and then some. In focusing on Giovanna and her journey, “The Lying Life of Adults” achieves an energy and warmth sometimes missing in the narratives about Lila and Lenù in the Quartet. And the answer to Ferrante first-time readers: Yes, this picaresque of adolescence set in a Naples of indeterminate chronology deserves a spot on your fall reading list. Giovanna’s fate, containing elements both expected and unexpected, makes her one of this year’s most memorable heroines.
The Lying Life of Adults
Translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 336 pages, $26
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven..