In a 2005 newspaper article entitled “Madame Bovary was my mother”, Elena Ferrante revealed that she had always wondered whether her own mother had perhaps harboured the thoughts of Flaubert’s frustrated heroine: “It’s strange how ugly this child is.”
This is where Ferrante’s latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, begins. Giovanna, a meek, obedient 12-year-old growing up in a middle-class part of Naples, overhears her father comparing her to his estranged sister Vittoria, who her parents had always described as someone in whom “ugliness and nastiness were perfectly matched”. His words precipitate a series of events that throw Giovanna’s life into chaos as she attempts to unravel the reasons behind the family fallout.
Published in Italy this month and due for publication in English in June next year, the novel was shrouded in secrecy until a surprise announcement in September. There had been concern that the reclusive author’s apparent “unmasking” in 2016 would hinder her ability to write fiction, but here is Ferrante’s first new work since the hugely successful Neapolitan novels (originally published in Italy between 2011 and 2014, and last year turned into a TV series named My Brilliant Friend after the first novel and directed by Saverio Costanzo). The book’s publication was met with reading vigils all over Italy, with fans queuing up to buy copies at the stroke of midnight. It’s only a matter of time before a Ferrante cafe springs up on the road that Giovanna lives on, San Giacomo dei Capri, selling panzerotti and pastacresciuta (local fried snacks that the protagonist and her father eat after school).
Ferrante follows Giovanna’s life from age 12 to 16, charting her development from the sweet girl who adores her parents to a sulking, aggressive teenager who finds pleasure in self-abasement and making those around her uncomfortable. The premise is a fertile one for the author, an expert chronicler of adolescence and its many indignities, as well as its erratic, overwhelming passions. Ferrante retains an extraordinary ability to conjure the concerns and changing priorities of different ages. She carefully depicts the way strong feelings can fade and mutate, with razor-sharp insights into the hypocrisies and muddled reasons that make people act the way they do. Parents’ foibles and unappealing habits are transmitted, Larkin-like, to their children.
What immediately distinguishes this book from its predecessors is its focus on the upper echelons of Neapolitan society in the early 1990s. Giovanna grows up in a wealthy leftwing household in which lively discussions about Marxism and the end of history are habitual; she and her friends are given educational booklets about sex and taught that they “need to feel proud to have been born female”. But, as Giovanna’s search for her mysterious aunt Vittoria leads her to discover a different Naples – much closer to the working class rione of the previous books – she does her best to cast off her privileged upbringing in favour of ill-considered liaisons with older men and a poorly pronounced, tentative Neapolitan dialect (one of the few things her liberal parents banned), often to humorous effect. Sculpture at Saint Martin’s College surely beckons.
As her apparently idyllic family unit starts to tear itself apart, Giovanna further exhibits rebellion against her humanist, progressive parents by flirting with a belief in the supernatural and, thanks to a fateful church visit with Vittoria, religion. This is where tall, studious, curly-haired Roberto – reminiscent of the quartet’s Nino Sarratore – comes in, delivering a sermon about compunction (you wait ages for the unattainable love interest in the follow-up to a much-loved series to be a hot priest figure, and then…). Giovanna is smitten.
If there is a sense of having been here before, it’s because there are themes common to Ferrante’s other work: a fascination with beauty, or the lack of it; class, and the ability to transcend poverty through study; the contrast and links between vulgarity and refinement. Families falling apart formed the basis of The Days of Abandonment; a complex, somewhat tedious narrative strand involving a grandmother’s bracelet brings to mind the mother’s clothes in Troubling Love. But, unlike the case in much of Ferrante’s previous fiction, there isn’t a character who acts as a direct foil to the protagonist.
Instead, various female figures appear and disappear without ever matching the rich character development granted to Giovanna, who goes from insecurity and painful self-analysis to an acceptance of sorts. At the start, it is Vittoria who imbues the story with a sense of momentum, her meetings with Giovanna described in vivid, electrifying detail. But as her figure is sidelined halfway through the book, the pace increases, flitting from scene to scene in quick succession. As with her previous work, Ferrante is at her best when she is homing in on the minutiae of everyday encounters, rather than attempting a sprawling overview covering many years and disparate issues.
Perhaps there will be room for these characters to grow and evolve: the book’s final pages leave the possibility of a follow-up. Bildungsroman milestones achieved, the novel ends with Giovanna and one of her friends heading away from their troubles, promising each other to “become adults like no one else has before”.
The Lying Life of Adults (translated by Ann Goldstein) is published on 9 June 2020 by Europa Editions. This review refers to the Italian edition