Published in Italy in November 2019 (fans lined up outside bookstores to purchase their copies at the stroke of midnight), The Lying Life of Adults is the first novel from Elena Ferrante since the final installment of the Neapolitan quartet, the series that made her an international literary star, was published in 2016. Set in an upscale neighborhood in 1990s Naples, her new novel is a powerful coming-of-age story like no other.
Dutiful, bookish and sweet, Giovanna is on the cusp of puberty when she overhears her father comparing her to his ugly sister. Used to receiving compliments, Giovanna is alarmed but curious, and despite her parents’ concerns, she initiates a relationship with her tempestuous Aunt Vittoria. As Giovanna learns more about her father’s background, she begins to see how her parents’ lies and treachery have impacted their lives as well as hers.
Giovanna travels between areas of Naples so different, they might as well be opposing planets: from the comfortable, progressive household where she was raised with a secular education, including access to sex education, to her aunt’s working-class neighborhood, which is mired in violence, religion and superstitions, all expressed in the dialect that Giovanna’s parents forbade her to speak at home.
Ferrante’s ability to draw in her reader remains unparalleled, and the emotional story is well served by Ann Goldstein’s smooth and engaging translation. The novel simmers with overt rage toward parental deception, teachers’ expectations and society’s impossible ideals of beauty and behavior. For readers who are familiar with Ferrante’s work, there will be much that is recognizable: the belief that poverty can be transcended through education, the power of a talismanic object (in this case, a bracelet that may or may not have belonged to Giovanna’s paternal grandmother) and the absurd linkage of physical beauty with purity and goodness. There is even an unattainable man who holds the promise of escape.
But The Lying Life of Adults is very much its own story. Giovanna’s self-reliance and her efforts to become the kind of adult she has yet to meet will resonate with thoughtful readers.