When Giovanna Trada is a teenager, she suddenly falls in love with a devout man named Roberto, a religious scholar she sees speaking at Mass. Raised by secular intellectuals, she has never been baptized and knows no prayers, but, enraptured by her new beloved’s faith, she decides to read the Gospels. 

But the Word of God is a disappointment. “I had begun to read with the idea that these were fables that would lead me to a love of God like Roberto’s,” she reflects. “But those texts didn’t follow the course of a fable, they unfolded in real places, the people had real jobs, they were people who had really existed. And ferocity stood out more than any other feeling. … Yes, it was a disturbing story.” She is horrified by the bloodless, punitive God it describes, the way Jesus disrespects his mother but allows his heavenly father to torture him without a word of reproach. The stories, which she imagined would inspire a clarifying, penetrating love, have instead brought confusion and disgust. 

“The Lying Life of Adults” is Giovanna’s coming-of-age story, a novel about the miserable, fracturing enlightenment of adolescence. The pangs of puberty lie at the heart of Elena Ferrante’s fictional explorations, bringing together her shrewd eye for fraught parent-child relationships, her sensitivity to physical desires and repulsions, and her interest in self-regard and self-presentation. It’s a novel ruled by the melodrama and disorder of the teenage mind but, as is Ferrante’s way, told both clinically and propulsively.

When the novel begins, Giovanna is leaving her charmed childhood. She’s accustomed to being the apple of her father’s eye and her mother’s deepest interest, but her parents are also happily married and ever-performing the story of their own romance for her. Both educated, attractive teachers, Nella also edits romance novels while Andrea is a minor leftist intellectual. Their close family friends, Mariano and Costanza, have two pretty, well-read daughters, Angela and Ida, who are her best friends.

In a Ferrante novel, as in life, adolescence is a squalid, traumatizing process. Her body begins to change; she is self-conscious about this, a little alienated by her suddenly budding breasts and new odors. Her grades are, unaccountably, slipping. And one day, as her parents are discussing this when they believe she can’t overhear, her usually doting father spits out a cruel diagnosis: “she’s getting the face of Vittoria.” 

Vittoria is his estranged sister, a woman Giovanna knows her father finds monstrous both inside and out. While he left the impoverished setting of his youth, Vittoria is still there, in the place where they grew up, and works as a maid. They see his family so rarely that Giovanna doesn’t even remember her aunt’s face; terrified that her father, whose approval is the sole force powering her self-esteem, is coming to find her hideous, she becomes obsessed with seeing Vittoria again to find out for herself.

Giovanna’s parents try to reassure her that “the face of Vittoria” is just a gentle inside joke between them, a reminder of how far they’ve come from their rough beginnings, but she is unappeased. They also worry, correctly, that Vittoria’s spiteful tales about them will drive a wedge between them and their impressionable daughter.

She said I had blinders like a horse, I looked but didn’t see the things that could disturb me.
“The Lying Life of Adults”

But Giovanna insists, and the meeting is set. The trouble deepens when she lays eyes on her aunt and, instead of finding her ugly, thinks she has “a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.” Even in these small things, Giovanna begins to realize that her parents may not be absolute authorities, that they may say things to her that are wrong or even deceitful, born of self-preservation. 

Vittoria, conversely, seems entirely forthright; she earns her young niece’s trust by speaking to her as if she were a peer, narrating in graphic detail her 11 sexual encounters with Enzo, her long-dead married lover. She fills her ears with bile about her brother Andrea, who told Enzo’s wife about their affair, shattering their romance and leaving him dead of a broken heart. Their odd friendship pulls Giovanna into a new, rougher world, centered on her aunt and her aunt’s makeshift family: Enzo’s widow, Margherita, with whom she eventually became close, and three children, Corrado, Tonino and Giuliana. They live in Pascone, a working-class neighborhood, where the cerebral cultivation and polished Italian valued in her parents’ circle is replaced by frank feeling ― sex, anger, love ― and the dialect Giovanna has always been forbidden to speak.  

For the first time, Giovanna must grapple with competing narratives ― not just her parents versus her aunt, but what her parents tell her directly versus the harsh words she’s overheard from them. Andrea and Nella have always urged their daughter to be devoted to her books. Vittoria also believes in study; she instructs Giovanna to pay close attention to other people, especially her parents, to see the way things really are.

“She said I had blinders like a horse, I looked but didn’t see the things that could disturb me,” Giovanna recalls. Less than secretly, she wants her niece to gather evidence of her parents’ perfidies. Eventually this is successful, and Giovanna discovers that her mother and father have betrayed the marriage she so idealized. Andrea leaves the family home, and Nella withers; Giovanna finds herself disgusted by both her father’s sexual profligacy and her mother’s submissiveness to it. 

Despite all this, she can’t quite let go of her belief in her father. His profession of her ugliness has planted a dogged little seed, and she grows to believe she is so ugly that it would be best simply to lean into it. Ferrante’s depiction of pubescent angst leaps off the page, never flinching away from the agony of minor humiliations, as when Giovanna struggles to speak intelligently in front of her crush, or more violent ones, as when she learns that a schoolmate has said that her “ass isn’t bad, either, just put a pillow over her face and you’d have a great fuck.” She starts to act out in rather conventional teenage ways: dressing provocatively, being sullen with her parents, neglecting her schoolwork and flirting with older boys. Men begin to stare at her breasts, and she is both enraptured by the power she has and revolted by the lewdness it elicits. 

She turns to her dazzlingly fierce aunt as a new authority but then begins to question her as well, disappointed by a hidden sentimental side that emerges. “Maybe I should have observed my aunt with the same attention with which she had urged me to spy on my parents,” she thinks, so that she would have observed that “behind the harshness that had charmed me there was a soft, foolish little woman” with “the ugliness of banality.” 

Finally she looks to Roberto, a boy who grew up in Pascone and who now studies theology in Milan but who is engaged to Giovanna’s older friend Giuliana. His special study is compunction, which he describes as “a needle that had to pull the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence… it was the knife that would prick the conscience to keep it from going to sleep.” 

Throughout “The Lying Life of Adults,” Giovanna is searching for just such a needle and thread. Adolescence has brought knowledge, but instead of entering into a beautifully formed adult narrative, her world has fallen to pieces. She learns about the great mysteries of adulthood, but they only bring greater confusion. She learns that adults lie, so then whom to believe? She learns about sex, but how to understand something that cannot be described by a single adjective but takes “so many ― embarrassing, bland, tragic, happy, pleasant, repulsive ― and never one at a time but all together”? There is a gaping chasm of authority in her life, and she is not yet prepared to be without it. 

This is the sort of grand confusion that leads people to religion, and in Vittoria and Roberto’s faith, Giovanna sees the potential for clarity. Instead, she finds another tale of male domination and meaningless suffering. All paths seem to lead back to male authority ― even Vittoria, who clings to the memory of Enzo’s beliefs as a beacon ― and all male authority seems destined to oppress, to fuck and then fuck over women. 

The structures that order life around Giovanna, from Christian faith to academia to the patriarchal family, are all suspect, but also inescapable ― or, at least, each escape is a false one leading to a new hell. “The Lying Life of Adults” takes on a certain circular trajectory, from awed enlightenment to doubt.

It can be frustrating, but Ferrante ensures it’s never boring. The spiraling quest for answers has all the urgency of a serialized drama and is punctuated by shocking revelations. Giovanna may still be searching, by the end of the novel, for ways to stitch together her own narrative, but Ferrante knows exactly how to tell a story.

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