Review: ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

Giovanna deems these lies “offensive,” and is as repelled by their self-serving sentimentality as she is, eventually, by Vittoria’s romantic vulgarity. Part of learning how to lie, Ferrante suggests, is learning how to judge lies based on their aesthetic merits. As we grow up, some varieties of lying must be cast aside: We know too much to accommodate their obvious falsity, their clichés, their failure to reconcile us to the intractable realities of life. What makes the adults seem so stunted is that none of them lies with elegance or verve, with imagination or originality. As non-novelists—teachers of the classics, proofreaders of romance—their lies borrow tropes from the fiction they produce and consume: romantic idealization, passivity in the face of passion, a feeling of fatedness. Yet, as Giovanna soon realizes, the lies designed by their literary culture are too reductive to give meaning to her quest to understand her sudden alienation from her life.

the lying life of adults is not an epic, a fable, or a romance like the novels Giovanna’s mother proofreads. It is not a bildungsroman or Künstlerroman in the way the quartet is. It is a novel of disillusionment, as the literary critic Georg Lukács once described the category: a novel that strips away its young protagonist’s major social relationships to elevate her interiority to “the status of a completely independent world.” From its origins in Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the genre explores an individual’s struggle to adapt private fantasies and illusions to an outer world hostile to them. The word Ferrante uses to describe this feeling of discordance is estraneità: “extraneousness,” “noninvolvement,” or, as Ann Goldstein beautifully translates it, “estrangement.” When Giovanna embraces her father, but draws no comfort from his familiar scent, she is overwhelmed by “a sense of estrangement that provoked suffering mixed incongruously with satisfaction”—suffering from the rupture with her family, from the loss of a shared world; and satisfaction at how her distance allows her to see her parents and aunt anew, her outer gaze clarified by her inner state of homelessness.

The novel’s second half shows how estrangement might allow Giovanna to approach, blindly, haltingly, more elevated forms of lying than what her parents have offered. The catalyst is Roberto, a classic Ferrante love interest. He is a brilliant scholar of religion, a Neapolitan boy who has found success as a young man in Milan but remains attached to his origins; he is engaged to an attractive, if insipid, girl from Vittoria’s neighborhood. When she meets Roberto, Giovanna, now almost 15, tells him she is reading a book about “the search for lost time,” and he praises her intellect. She tells herself the lie that comes fluently to all teenagers: “Become his friend, only that, and show him that, somewhere inside me, unknown even to myself, I possess the qualities he needs.”