Review: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions 2020)

Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri

Elena Ferrante’s works examine a person’s interior with a focus on the feminine experience. Her prose captivates readers as she contrasts vivid imagery with womanly milestones and life’s difficulties. Ferrante also brings a true sense of Italian-ness to her work that cannot be overlooked nor removed. Being Italian-American, all these qualities drew me to her newest release, The Lying Life of Adults.

Twelve-year-old Giovanna’s world changes when she overhears her father comment on her face, comparing her to his estranged sister, Vittoria. Giovanna takes his opinion to heart, becoming fearful but also curious about her similarities to her aunt. Giovanna’s commitment to forging a relationship with her aunt begins to alter her internal and external identities. Her adolescent thoughts are challenged by the truths she begins to unearth about her family — and more importantly, about herself.

Ferrante’s choice to use the first-person point of view provides the reader a continuous stream of Giovanna’s consciousness as we see her world from her perspective. From the onset of the story, Ferrante lays the foundation for Giovanna’s autonomy. Beginning with the overhead statement of her “ugliness” and comparison to Vittoria, Giovanna immediately reconciles what she must do: “I was in despair all night. In the morning I was convinced that, if I wanted to save myself, I had to go and see what Aunt Vittoria’s face was really like” (16). The decision to investigate her inner familial workings begins Giovanna’s ascent into adulthood and separation from the total influence her family — especially her father – had on her identity. The growth of her budding relationship with her aunt mirrors the development of Giovanna’s critical analysis, first of her family, and later of the societal expectations placed on her. As the cracks in her familial stronghold become gaps and the power dynamics in her relationships, especially romantic ones, shift, Giovanna discovers a universal heartbreaking truth: “I could no longer be innocent, behind my thoughts there were other thoughts, childhood was over” (118).

Along with Giovanna’s autonomy, Ferrante devotes a significant amount of the narrative to classism, entwining these two concepts together to emphasize the coming-of-age theme. As most children are apt to do, Giovanna idolizes her parents, especially her father. This fantastical view shatters as she begins to see her family for who and what they are. Ferrante uses Aunt Vittoria and Giovanna’s parents to explore how their contempt is rooted in classism. Vittoria shows a disdain for intellectual superiority: “Your father–she was angry–has deprived you of a big family, of all of us, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, because we’re not intelligent and educated liked him; he cut us off with a hatchet, he forced you to grow up in isolation, for fear we’d ruin you” (62). Vittoria blames Giovanna’s father for everything, including her own actions. In contrast, Giovanna’s parents use class and social standing as a qualifier for positive conflict resolution: “That’s ridiculous. It’s because Mariano teaches at the university, makes him feel good, gives him a certain status, while Vittoria makes him feel like what he is” (183). Although each adult’s mistakes are similar, the varying degrees of acceptance and forgiveness are directly determined by class. Giovanna’s internal values contrast these beliefs about social standing. Instead, her values are founded on moral grounds, allowing her to establish an identity separate from her parents.

 The Lying Life of Adults infuses the journey from adolescence to adulthood with equal parts emotional impact, discovery of one’s self, and significant life lessons. Ferrante’s relatability to her audience transcends the page, causing her readers to reflect on the milestones of their own lives with a new gaze. Through Giovanna, we encounter life’s saddest fact: someday, we have to grow up.

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