October 2020

Noted

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

By Stephanie Bishop
‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante
The Neapolitan author returns to characters driven by compulsions and tensions of class

“As a child,” Elena Ferrante wrote in The Guardian, “I was a big liar.” Then, “around the age of 12, I decided not to lie any more. Perhaps I simply wanted to become adult, and telling lies seemed childish.” For the younger Ferrante, the impulse to lie was at odds with the seriousness of adulthood. It is this erroneous belief that fuels Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults.

Narrated by the character of Giovanna as she looks back over her adolescence, it opens in the early stages of Giovanna’s puberty. She’s feeling “very fragile” and aware that her body is being newly assessed, especially by her father. She has long believed in the infallibility of her parents, whom she greatly admires. Eager to please them, Giovanna prides herself on being a “good little girl”. Unlike Ferrante, she is a girl who does not lie. But Giovanna is taken aback when she overhears her father saying that she is becoming ugly, and that as her body changes she is starting to resemble his estranged sister Vittoria, a woman he despises. This information heralds the beginning of the end of Giovanna’s childhood: “I was supposed to have a happy life and instead an unhappy period was starting.”

But who is Vittoria? Why has her face been scratched out in family photographs? Troubled by the assertion that she resembles this ugly aunt, Giovanna deceives her parents to go and see Vittoria for herself. What she finds surprises. Vittoria is crude, intense and influential: “the proximity of that threatening and enveloping woman captivated me”.

As a result of her growing relationship with Vittoria, Giovanna discovers that the lies within her family run deep and uncovering them risks the destruction of her family unit. In response, her own lies become increasingly complex – not simply acts of deceit, but occasions for fabrication. Giovanna comes to enjoy lying and starts to use this talent for her own advantage. The journey towards adulthood, she realises, is one of disillusionment: “Lies, lies, adults forbid them, and yet they tell so many.” The question is whether in the rubble of these lies, Giovanna can find a path towards her own liberation.

It’s impossible not to read this novel in light of Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet”, with which The Lying Life of Adults shares a family resemblance. True to type, her characters are again driven by compulsions and impassioned urges, by the tensions of class. They are characters full of strong appetites and aversions. The lies told are generally about the body – these are powerful acts of deceit that cover up the presence of desire, or ensure certain desires are met. Ferrante bewitches us once again, in a novel that explores how, over time, the lies we tell ourselves become indistinguishable from the stories we live by.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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