Dysfunctional Families, Suffocating Cities and Growing Up – Review: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

As we enter yet another phase of lockdown after what, for many young people, has been a particularly insular, small-town Christmas period, Elena Ferrante’s newest novel offers a reflection on adolescence, family and familiarity more poignant than ever.

The Lying Life of Adults is a moody coming-of-age tale that follows both the long-awaited revelation of its author’s identity and comes hot off of the international success of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet: four novels that attend the lives of two Neapolitan women. While at first glance, Lying Life seems strikingly similar, the new novel’s focus on the adolescence of its protagonist, Giovanna, and her dramatic inner world, places new weight on themes of rediscovery and reinterpretation, especially within a domestic environment.

The setting of pinched Neapolitan streets and extended-family-crowded houses is immediately painted via the hindsight of an older narrator. This tone of bitter-sweet familiarity is multiplied for Ferrante’s returning readers, likely feeling more at ease in the world of Naples than Giovanna herself, for whom the lower city of her father’s childhood is sinister and foreign.

The claustrophobia of small rooms and social circles has a jarring resonance. Familial arguments take on life-shattering importance, as digging insults sow seed for years of conflict and bodily change is treated with the same gravitas as an atomic bomb. While the narrator, an older and wiser Giovanna, admittedly sometimes lurches into the melodramatic, it would be a lie to say that such melodrama is not appropriate.

After months of highs, lows and building tensions among young people and their families, Ferrante’s indulgence of her protagonist’s theatrical and volatile presentation of her parents is welcomed. Within the pages of Lying Life, any young reader who has experienced the intensifying conflict of their social bubble can see it mirrored back at them. Giovanna’s piercing voice validates the important clashes that families take on, especially when those you are related to become your entire world.

Ferrante frames this emotional picture of a family at odds through the lens of detective work. Giovanna ferrets out her estranged aunt, traces the history of a dispute-causing silver bracelet and resorts to scraping inked black-outs out of previously nostalgic family photos. Not only does the Nancy Drew-esque quality of the scenes contribute to the rapid pace and breathless excitement characteristic of Ferrante’s work, but also embodies the shifting perspectives a young person feels towards their family.

Giovanna’s movement from a naive girl who believes her parents are “the only clear figures in a world that was otherwise confused”, to one able to see through her father’s defence of an affair, takes place in the throes of early teenage hood. While this life-changing shift is unflinchingly presented by Ferrante, who divulges the swelling bodies and spiralling mentalities of her adolescent characters, this sudden transformation is certainly recognisable to anyone who has suddenly had to move back home during the pandemic.

The change from viewing your family home through the fuzz of nostalgia, to the harsh clarity adulthood provides, is familiar to many young people returning home. The piecing together of memories and objects of childhood– remnants of hushed arguments, sulky faces of birthday party guests, reliably silenced family names – only to find what you did not originally see is undoubtably mirrored by Ferrante’s closely-observed world.  

Lying Life ends on the question of what is next for Giovanna, as she decides to take her first steps into adulthood. It is a question of what lies ahead for the protagonist from the point of view of her older, novelist self. The joint retrospective tone and image of the present uncertainty is both terrifying and reassuring, leaving the reader to take steps into the unfamiliar with Giovanna.

Ultimately, Ferrante’s newest work reminds us that while floundering in the unknown we might expect to find solace, and simultaneously that the unfamiliar is a necessary step in each of our own narratives. Both messages are more reassuring than ever as we enter 2021.

Article by Kate Bowie