The Lying Life of Adults
by elena ferrante
translated by ann goldstein
europa editions, 336 pages, $26
For about three years, I read fiction on my phone. I’d never done so before, and I haven’t since. I had to, during this period, because my wife and I were working our way through “The Neapolitan Quartet,” a series of novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. The books were so readable that I couldn’t wait for Anna to finish reading the hard copies we owned.
The story of two little girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s may not sound like the most engrossing reading, but it is, because of how Ferrante uses intense storytelling to illuminate the interior lives of her characters. The first novel begins with the girls’ exhilarating, terrifying quest to retrieve their toy dolls from a dark basement owned by the local crime boss. Ferrante’s books are so enthralling, I’d read hundreds of pages before noticing that religion hardly figures in them. This is strange given the setting—a poor neighborhood of postwar Naples—and also how much time and attention Ferrante devotes to detailing the great human drama of ordinary things, such as school-going, grocery shopping, summer vacations, and factory work, never mind what happens behind the slammed doors of family apartments. Did none of these people ever go to church? Were feast days never celebrated in the town square?
In Ferrante’s new novel, set in the nineties, religion comes to the fore. The Lying Life of Adults is the story of Giovanna, a teenage girl in Naples who tells us, in the novel’s opening line, “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” We soon learn that this ugliness has a specific quality: Her face is beginning to resemble that of her Aunt Vittoria. Giovanna’s parents rarely mention Vittoria. She has never visited their fine, book-filled apartment, a place where intellectuals gather for food, drink, and arguments. The opening section ends, “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.”
Giovanna’s contented view of the world gives way after she begins visiting her aunt. Vittoria lives in the decrepit apartment where Giovanna’s father grew up, in a far poorer and rougher part of town. She turns out to be very beautiful, but coarse and aggressive. She is contemptuous of her aloof brother and of polite opinion. After the man with whom she was carrying on a notorious affair suffered an untimely death, she befriended his widow and became a devoted surrogate mother to the couple’s children.
All of this is relatively consistent with Ferrante’s previous work. The novel enters new territory when Vittoria takes Giovanna and her friends to church one day. She is moved to do this after the girls matter-of-factly explain that they are not baptized and describe the atheism they’ve been formed in, as the obedient daughters of secular progressives:
‘Limbo doesn’t exist,’ said Ida.
‘Nor Paradise, purgatory, or hell,’ Angela added.
‘Who told you that?’ [said Vittoria]
‘And where does he think God puts those who sin and those who don’t sin?’
‘God doesn’t exist, either,’ said Ida.
‘And sin doesn’t exist,’ Angela explained.
‘That’s what Papa told you?’
‘Papa is a merda.’
The least respectable character in the novel is also the one most committed to religion and ritual. Vittoria, it turns out, is a devout Catholic and a noisy, elbows-out contributor to parish life. She enjoys (and robustly suffers) a far fuller range of human experience than the tidy, decorous unbelievers who live in the nicer neighborhoods.
While turbulently moving between these worlds, Giovanna falls for a charismatic young lay theologian associated with her aunt’s parish. Crushing on the boy, Giovanna begins reading the Bible while getting caught up in a great deal of real and melodramatic strife as her parents separate. She is drawn to faith but unable to move beyond the safe intellectualism that characterizes the lives of her parents and her own peers, never mind their penchants for grimy hook-ups and petty antagonisms. A typical Ferrante protagonist, Giovanna both loathes and feels captive to a bourgeois vision of the good life, if in this case following an ambivalent immersion in a life of faith.
By the novel’s end, Giovanna has resolved to set out for Venice with a friend, ready “to become adults like no one else has before.” On closing the book, you can almost hear Aunt Vittoria laughing at her niece’s notions, while standing in line for confession.
Randy Boyagoda is professor of English and vice-dean of Undergraduate Studies in Arts and Science at the University of Toronto.