Book Review - The Lying Life of Adults

“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” The opening line of Elena Ferrante’s latest novel haunts her young protagonist throughout her unwelcome adolescence. When Giovanna’s father, Andrea, claims she resembles his working-class sister Vittoria (who he has shunned since his marriage to Nella) it sets off a chain of rebellious acts in his twelve-year-old daughter.

Once again, Naples is Ferrante’s stunning backdrop and she explores the familiar emotional landscape of her previous novels. Andrea and Nella are teachers living high up in the city’s middle-class district. Unable to find any photographs of her aunt, Giovanna decides they have to meet. During their first encounter, her father stubbornly sits in his car outside Vittoria’s apartment in the rundown Industrial Zone. Giovanna finds her gloriously uncouth, wild, and passionate with “a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.”

Giannì, as she is affectionately called by Vittoria, learns about her aunt’s great love, Enzo, a married man whose family she befriends after his death. Giannì finds herself caught between the two worlds that divide her family and friends: where they live, the language they speak (pure Italian or local dialect) and their education. Her own fragile sense of identity is further fractured by the names by which they attempt to claim her.

A recurring motif is a delicate bracelet, passed between characters, and the reason Andrea’s long infidelity with his best friend’s wife is discovered. After Andrea sets up home with Costanza, Giannì perceives the oppressive dark clouds that descend on her as representative of dishonesty and hypocrisy that surround her. She dresses in black, ignores her school failures and indulges in listless sexual encounters.

Ferrante explores the strange knowingness of adolescence. Everything shifts when Giovanna strikes up an unlikely friendship with Enzo’s daughter, Giuliana, and meets her fiancé, Roberto, a brilliant academic living in Milan. Like her father, Roberto has used education to escape his working-class Neapolitan roots. Lovestruck, Giovanna plots ways to meet the couple and is allowed to chaperone Giuliana to Milan. Aware that she lacks her friend’s beauty, Giovanna reads furiously. Lies and betrayal become second nature. In Milan she is disappointed by the couple’ closeness. But Roberto offers a flicker of hope when he tells her she is beautiful. In these “ugly years”, beauty is everything.

Just as J.D. Salinger captured teenage male rebellion in The Catcher in the Rye, Ferrante has created a memorable portrait of female adolescence – the self-hatred, fury and angst. She’s written one of the most excruciatingly passionless sex scenes you’ll ever read, builds claustrophobia and tension to terrific effect and, as ever, her vivid characterisation will remain etched on your mind.

Originally pulished in The Tablet