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The Lying Life of Adults (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) by Elena Ferrante — book review

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“L’amore è opaco come i vetri delle finestre dei cessi.”

(I’m no Ann Goldstein but the above quote can be roughly translated to: “Love is as opaque as the windows of a shit-house”).

In this latest novel by Elena Ferrante, La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti (or The Lying Life of Adults in its English translation) we are confronted with a narrative that challenges the myth of happy family (in altre parole il mito della ‘famiglia del mulino bianco’).
The novel opens in what could be regarded as the story’s ‘inciting incident’, one that sets off our protagonist on a fraught journey from childhood to adulthood. Set in Naples during the nineties, the very first line of La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti informs that: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly” (“Due anni prima di andarsene mio padre disse a mia madre che ero molto brutta”). Our narrator, Giovanna, remembers with painful clarity the effect that these overheard words had on her at the age of twelve. Once heard, they could not be unheard. It is perhaps because this word, ‘ugly’, is uttered by her loving father—a father who used to tell her of how gorgeous (‘bella’) she was—that it has such devastating consequences.
Giovanna, the daughter of two well-educated teachers, who mainly move in intellectual circles and appear to be well-adjusted in life, begins to see her parents through a new lens. Her parents are not part of an invincible and united entity whose main purpose in life is her happiness and wellbeing. Once Giovanna begins to see these ‘cracks’ in their marriage and in their parenting, she begins to resent them for their lies. The word ‘ugly’, her newfound awareness of her parents’ and other peoples’ lies, weigh heavily upon her, so much so that her life seems to take a downward spiral.

A key player in Giovanna’s fracture from her parents is her father’s estranged sister, Aunt Vittoria. When Giovanna starts questioning why she has never met her father’s side of family she unearths a decades old feud between her father and Vittoria. In many ways it is discovering that her father ‘cut off’ Vittoria from his existence deeply perturbs Giovanna. However, as she begins to spend more and more time with Vittoria, she seems to experience some odd sense of satisfaction from the possibility of angering her parents or of damaging their image of her. The more her parents stress Vittoria’s ‘ugly’ personality, the more Giovanna feels compelled to imitate her, modulating her behaviour in a way that makes her rather misanthropic.
Vittoria’s way of existence seems to Giovanna to be diametrically different to the other adults in her life. Unlike her parents and their acquaintances, Vittoria lives in what many consider to be a disreputable area, she gets by working ‘menial’ jobs, she speaks in a strong dialect, and she’s frequently blunt to the point of vulgarity. Vittoria’s mercurial personality, her propensity to hold a grudge, and her endless tirades, reminded me a lot of another anti-intellectual, Emerence from Magda Szabó‘s The Door (their only difference seems to be that Vittoria is religious). Vittoria seems to plant a seed of doubt in her niece’s mind. Is Giovanna’s father the mean spirited man Vittoria makes him out to be? Is he lying to Giovanna? Is everything he told her a lie ?

Giovanna’s identity crisis is dominated by an almost pathological self-hatred. She obsessively checks her face and body, looking for traces of Vittoria’s ‘uglyness’ in herself. Later on she seems almost elated in discovering the ability to say things to hurt others and finds some sort of power in discovering that a lot of older boys find her biting words and those physical attributes she herself hates to be enticing.
This novel focuses on the way in which Giovanna’s teenage years are clouded by bitterness and a general ill-feeling. Her parents, like many other parents, seem to believe that as long as she does well in school, she is fine. Giovanna however has no wish to keep adults’ pretences of happiness, politeness, and decency. She wants to denigrate others as well as herself, she wants to hurt and lie to other people.
Giovanna would not be out of place in a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. She is egocentric, morbid, and deeply alienated. She is bored by her peers and sick of her parents’ falsities. And while it is clear that she wishes to be an adult, her self-hatred and deep-seated insecurity do not really allow her to mature. More than once readers might find her rage and unhealthy behaviours as signs of adolescent angst. Giovanna however takes herself very seriously: small gestures and or words uttered in distraction can, and often will, have a debilitating effect on her.

While I was reading this novel Ferrante’s writing reminded me more than once of Gustave Flaubert. Their proses give the impression of having being laboured over: each word seems to have been especially chosen and placed in the right position. Also, this novel’s opening lines (where Giovanna overhears her father saying that she’s ugly) seem Madame Bovary
: “How strange,” thought Emma. “The child is so ugly!” (for those who are wondering, the child in question is Emma’s own daughter). I wasn’t surprised to discover that Ferrante’s La frantumaglia mentions this passage: “Now I read Flaubert’s letters, his other books. Every sentence was well shaped, some more than others, but not one—not one ever had for me the devastating force of that mother’s thought: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide!
Time and again the narrator returns to these words. Her fear of being ugly, that is of having a disagreeable if not bad personality, plagues her during her teenager years. While at times Ferrante could be a bit tedious (especially when we hear time and again of how horrible Giovanna feels or believes herself to be) I was somewhat fascinated by her narrator’s self-loathing diatribes. Ferrante manages to depict the way in which Giovanna is affected by each one of her negative emotions or thoughts, paying incredible attention to the nuances that accompany these complex feelings. Giovanna often feels many things all at once. Her self-hatred is often accompanied by a sense of self-satisfaction; when she speaks cruel words to her mother she feels both empowered and vaguely disgusted.
Ferrante is almost meticulous in the way she identifies and describes Giovanna’s various states of mind. Her Italian is simply captivating and I often found myself in awe of her word choices, her use of repetition, alliteration, and specific tenses.
The fluidity of her writing distracted me from Giovanna’s overwhelmingly negative worldview. Still, I can’t say that Ferrante’s writing completely makes up for her rather uneventful story. Giovanna seems to go into frenzies over the smallest things. While most readers are aware that teenagers often tend to ‘magnify’ certain events, they might find Giovanna’s tendency to think and feel in extremes and her perpetual state of self-torment to be rather testing. And while Ferrante’s writing is strikingly ambivalent, eloquently crisp, simultaneously expressive and subtle , there were certain passages that seemed rather self-indulgent. While for the most part Giovanna’s exploration of her sexuality struck me for its realism, the way in which she describes male bodies seemed unnecessarily apathetic. Ferrante has the tendency to describes male genitalia as if it was an abstract sculpture. Giovanna never uses the more common Italian word for penis (or vagina for that matter) resorting instead to old-fashioned terms (the story is set in the nineties, not the fifties).

This is a rather heavy going novel. Our main character spends most of the narrative hating herself or others. The bitterness, loathing, repugnance, and envy experienced by Giovanna, as well as her solipsism, her growing aversion towards her parents, her general ill-disposition, and her frequent lapses into bouts of truculence, make her rather hard-going, if not downright unsympathetic, character.
While Ferrante is precise when she articulates these painful and disruptive teenage years, her characters could have been more fleshed out (they all seem to play the one role in Giovanna’s life: the parents are liars, Vittoria is chaotic).
Still, if you are interested in reading of a realistic passage into adulthood and/or you are a Ferrante devotee you might find La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti to be a deeply compelling read. Giovanna’s narrative is simmering with barely concealed rage: towards our parents’ lies, their expectations, their hypocrisy, their falsehoods, and their very vulnerability.
Ferrante is unflinching in her portrayal of Giovanna’s early adolescence and provides a context to her existential malaise and fury. Through her incisive prose she chronicles Giovanna’s despair, her paranoia, her crippling self-loathing, her despair (over her changing body and her family’s circumstances), and her obscure, wilful, and frankly perplexing states of minds. As Giovanna becomes aware of her own limitations and of her own misperceptions, she seeks to protect herself by embracing a more ephemeral existence. The ending of this novel is almost jarring and does not feel as cathartic as Ferrante seems to imply it is.
Nevertheless I probably would pick up another novel by Ferrante.

Due righe in italiano:
Premettendo che il mio italiano ormai è stato anglicizzato (insomma, si è arrugginito) volevo esprimere un attimo il mio parere riguardo La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti. Ferrante è una scrittrice eccezionale, su questo non ci sono dubbi. Ammiro davvero il suo modo di scrivere, i termini che usa (come e dove li usa). Purtroppo i suoi personaggi erano eccessivamente sgradevoli. I ragazzi, con l’eccezione di Roberto, erano tutti uguali (capisco che ci sono gli ormoni in balla ma potevano avere delle personalità un poco più complesse). I genitori di Giovanna e zia Vittoria finiscono ai margini della storia. Roberto e la sua ragazza erano blandi. Giovanna mi ha dato abbastanza sui nervi (nella sua testa si sussegue una smania dopo l’altra).
Comunque Ferrante scrive in un maniera davvero magnetica.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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