“They loved me, I loved them,” explains Giovanna Trada, the heroine of Elena Ferrante’s newest novel “The Lying Life of Adults.” “My father seems to me an extraordinary man, my mother a really nice woman, and the two of them were the only clear figures in a world that was otherwise confused.”
Nearly 13 years old, Giovanna has had a dignified, upper-middle-class upbringing. Her father, Andrea, is a Marxist high school teacher who is well known among the Italian intelligentsia. Her mother is a teacher who spends her free time editing romance novels.
The bond Giovanna has with her parents is, in her mind, incorruptible, indissoluble. She is made of their blood; she is a product of their love. But don’t these bonds always weaken?
The novel begins with this dissolution. After overhearing her father remark on her developing resemblance to a much-maligned aunt when her grades begin to fall, she reasons that the love of her parents is perhaps contingent on a set of expectations consistent with their social standing.
Aunt Vittoria, Andrea’s estranged sister, was never introduced to Giovanna because she is not a “presentable” woman. She is uneducated, vulgar and spiteful. According to her parents, she is determined to ruin her father’s life. For Giovanna, Vittoria is not just a disaffected relative, but a boogeyman, an amorphous danger, the embodiment of an ugliness beyond a child’s comprehension.
As Giovanna enters adolescence and finds her own body transforming, she is repulsed. She determines that her father’s words are correct, and these changes in her body speak to an inevitability not only in her DNA, but in her character.
When Andrea and Nella reluctantly allow their daughter to meet this reviled relative, their purpose is only to assuage their daughter’s worries about her fate, to atone for Andrea’s regrettable comment, to recover the daughter they sensed was slipping from their grasp. But when Vittoria enters Giovanna’s life, her influence is immediate and profound. She finds Vittoria is just as bitter, coarse and erratic as her parents warned. And yet, she offers things to Giovanna that her parents do not.
On their second meeting, Vittoria brings her niece to a cemetery to visit the plot of her deceased lover, a married man with three children. She recounts their sex in precise detail, telling Giovanna that “if you, in all your life, don’t do this thing as I did it, with the passion I did it with, the love I did it with, and I don’t mean 11 times but at least once, it’s pointless to live.”
“She treated me like an adult, and I was glad from the start she had abandoned the proper way to speak to a girl of 13,” Giovanna reflects. She also wisely concludes, “It seemed to me that pleasure would be impossible if it weren’t followed immediately by the grief she still felt.”
Of her many curses, Vittoria’s capacity to make others share in her suffering is perhaps her most defining. Her invasive gaze enters the Trada household through Giovanna’s eyes. Her insidious and artful manipulations reveal appalling truths about her parents.
“The Lying Life of Adults” is desultory and meandering at times, but in this way, it mirrors the structure of the coming-of-age journey it tracks. Readers first encounter Giovanna, adorned in pink and white, just as she is exiting her childhood. Not many pages later, she is dressing in all black and caking on dark, heavy makeup. “I thought I was hideous and wanted to be more hideous,” she discloses. Then, almost imperceptibly, there is another change: Giovanna’s gaze is no longer directed solely inward. She is able to identify her Vittoria-like tendencies and curb them, although imperfectly. She is able to distance herself from her parents in ways not just designed to hurt them, but to protect her. She is able to weigh the consequences of her own impulses in ways that her family members clearly are not.
“What happened … in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?” she asks herself, overwhelmed by the weight of her family’s many deceptions. Giovanna’s internal transformation, which sometimes causes whiplash, materializes as she is volleyed between the corrosive forces of her parents and aunt. As a young woman who does not feel at home in her own body, how is she to maneuver the many traps of adulthood when the influence of the adults in her life is poison?
“The Lying Life of Adults” ends with a vow between Giovanna and a friend whose adolescence has been no less harrowing: “We promised each other to become adults as no one ever had before.”
“The Lying Life of Adults” by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 324 pp., $26