There is a moment that comes in the life of many adolescent girls that Elena Ferrante is terribly, heartbreakingly good at evoking. It’s the moment when prettiness, in childhood taken for granted and hence ignored, becomes horribly contingent. And all at once, the importance of prettiness becomes impossible to ignore.
It’s easy to be a pretty child. Lots of children are pretty. So it’s easy, also, not to think about your own prettiness as a child. But then come the sweat and smells of adolescence, the shiftings and lengthenings and swellings that change the body in unfamiliar ways. Childhood cuteness fades away, and who knows what will come in its place? Who knows if you’ll ever be pretty again? And now that it is possible that you might not ever be pretty, it becomes clear just how awful the world is to a girl who isn’t.
For Giovanna, the narrator of Ferrante’s new novel The Lying Life of Adults, that moment comes when she is 12 years old, in the opening pages of the novel. Giovanna spent her early life petted and adored by her Marxist intellectual father, who assured her that she was beautiful, but now she overhears him telling her mother in a fit of rage, “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.”
Vittoria is Giovanna’s mythically monstrous aunt, whom her father has always said is as hideous as she is spiteful. And so Giovanna knows exactly what her father means: She used to be pretty, but now she is ugly. She used to be a good child, but now she is a bad child.
This news is an existential shock, one that destabilizes Giovanna’s entire sense of her world. And in that moment, Ferrante evokes precisely the feeling of sordid, slimy shame that comes on at the beginning of adolescence, the sense that you have failed and cannot understand why.
Ferrante follows Giovanna over the course of the next four years as she struggles to develop a new identity for herself. She tracks down the mythical Vittoria, who lives in the impoverished Naples where Giovanna’s father grew up, and is enchanted: Vittoria is so full of life, so brashly physical, so unlike Giovanna’s polished and cosmopolitan parents. Giovanna at first tries to model herself on Vittoria, teaching herself to speak poorly accented Neopolitan dialect instead of the polished Italian her parents taught her and tossing aside the sweet pink outfits her mother got her for an all-black wardrobe.
But as her self-loathing topples her, Giovanna abandons Vittoria to focus on boys. First, they become the means by which she might degrade herself. Eventually, with the entry of the saintly Roberto, who tells Giovanna that she is beautiful, they become figures who can dispense the approval that Giovanna’s father withheld from her.
Much of this plot is a reexamination of themes Ferrante has already dealt with in her other novels, particularly the celebrated Neopolitan quartet that made her pseudonym a household name in the US, starting with 2011’s My Brilliant Friend. (The Lying Life of Adults is the first novel Ferrante has published since her doxxing in 2016, and like Ferrante’s other work, the book has been marvelously translated into English by Ann Goldstein.)
But The Lying Life of Adults takes place in the 1990s rather than the 1950s, where the quartet begins, and Giovanna is a generation removed from the quartet’s Lenù and Lila. They were fighting to get out of the working class Naples where they lived, but Giovanna’s father has already gotten out of that neighborhood. Giovanna’s struggle is that of the first-generation middle-class girl, the daughter of the striver who made good: It lands on her to make sure the family doesn’t fall back to its old station.
Moreover, while the Neopolitan quartet lives and breathes by the relationships between women, and particularly between Lenù and Lila, in The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna is utterly preoccupied with men and what she means to them, which is to say what she can make herself mean through them. She rejects Vittoria and all that Vittoria offers her, and although she has a few close girlfriends, including one she frequently kisses and embraces, she abandons them all to focus on men. So while Lenù and Lila had a refuge of sorts from the terrible things men frequently did to them within their own vexed, oft-betrayed friendship, Giovanna has nothing else. This novel is bleak.
And Giovanna warns us in the novel’s opening pages that this quest of hers to find meaning through men will ultimately prove fruitless. “I am nothing, nothing of my own,” she tells us, “nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
It’s true that it’s impossible to tell if the thread of the story in this novel offers redemption or not. There is a glimmer of it, a glance of a possibility, in the final pages of the book, when Giovanna forms an alliance with her most ignored female friend. But it will take a whole other Ferrante novel, at least, for us to discover whether or not that friendship will be enough to redeem Giovanna from the existential despair into which men have thrown her.
The Lying Life of Adults comes out September 1, 2020.
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