Reading is always an escape into another world, but the best books force the reader to truly feel what it’s like to be a person other than oneself.
In her newest novel, Elena Ferrante’s captivating first-person narration — precisely what makes her acclaimed Neapolitan Novels so compelling — transports readers not only into the world of 1990s Naples, but also directly into the mind of the protagonist, Giovanna. Ferrante’s unmatched ability to evoke empathy for an adolescent female protagonist shines yet again in “The Lying Life of Adults.”
Twelve-year-old Giovanna begins the story by saying, “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly,” piquing the reader’s interest and introducing them to her harsh, direct voice. Giovanna reveals a few pages later that her father had not actually been so forthright; in fact, he had likened her to her estranged Aunt Vittoria, known for being incredibly ugly.
Imagine, amid the vulnerability of adolescence, hearing your parents compare you to the person they hate most in the world. Her father’s comment haunts her, launching her into years of self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. Seeking confirmation of her aunt’s storied ugliness, Giovanna goes to meet Vittoria and subsequently becomes acquainted with the world in which her father grew up: the ugly side of Naples.
Vittoria forces Giovanna to find ugliness in her formerly idyllic home, an act which, according to Vittoria, merely requires paying attention. When Giovanna learns of her father’s yearslong affair with his best friend’s wife, Giovanna blames Vittoria for exposing her family’s faults. At the same time, she is afraid to admit to herself that Vittoria’s cynicism might not be unfounded. She vacillates between shutting Vittoria out and immersing herself in her aunt’s world during the story’s three-year span.
Spending time with Vittoria is far from a reprieve from the trials of adolescence, though her cruel honesty is contrasted with the superficial pleasantness of Giovanna’s parents. Vittoria co-parents the three children of a long-dead man with whom she had a brief but passionate affair, alongside his wife. Giovanna can’t help but find the cracks in this complicated dynamic just as she does in the relationship of her parents.
Ferrante makes readers feel the weight of Giovanna’s unhappiness, and through our view of her experience we are able to understand her self-destructive behavior. We are privy to her thoughts when they contradict her actions. We find reason in her choices even when she and we both know they are stupid, hurtful or reckless. The detail of Giovanna’s inner thoughts and the raw honesty with which Ferrante describes her emotions make the reader intimately connected to her psyche.
Giovanna spends the later half of the book pining for her love interest, Roberto, who is the fiance of Vittoria’s dead lover’s daughter. Though she cares about both of them, Giovanna is willing to sacrifice her friendship with Roberto’s fiance to win his heart. Giovanna leads us to believe her chemistry with Roberto is tangible and that he is even willing to sleep with her. Entrenched in the perspective of Giovanna, we have no way to discern the reality of his feelings — though considering Roberto is a loyal fiance who is also 10 years Giovanna’s senior, we have reason to be skeptical — but we accept Giovanna’s truth as our own.
Toward the novel’s end, as Giovanna wallows in her loneliness, her early morning ruminating strikes a chord in the heart of anyone who has ever been heartbroken or 15: “It was four in the morning, I struggled to remember where I was, and when I did I immediately thought: I’ll be unhappy my whole life.”
Much of Giovanna’s world is reminiscent of the one portrayed in the Neapolitan Novels, and perhaps too much. Giovanna’s self-destructive obsession with Roberto echoes that of the protagonist of the Neapolitan quartet with her love interest. Likewise, the detailed paragraphs describing Giovanna’s unhappiness almost make the reader forget which Ferrante book they are reading. Perhaps Ferrante cannot help but imbue her protagonists with familiar experiences, or perhaps the similarity instead speaks to a certain degree of universality of adolescent love and misery.
Ferrante’s writing is everything first-person narration should be, and “The Lying Life of Adults” is no exception. As young adolescents, most of us knew the feeling of reckoning with our identity in a way that is all-consuming, an experience we somehow forget. Adults tend to not give the minds, worries and hearts of adolescents the importance they deserve. Ferrante makes remembering — and actually experiencing — the depth and overwhelming nature of adolescence nonnegotiable. For 322 pages, we are Giovanna.