What can we learn about the conjunction of life and fiction from a work of fiction about lying? Ferrante’s exquisitely moody new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is about a teenager named Giovanna who learns that the grown-ups in her life have been lying to her. She also learns that the contents of their lies are less intriguing than their styles of lying—exaggeration, omission, justification, obfuscation—which vary in their skillfulness, and in the pleasure and pain they afford. All lie differently from The Lying Life of Adults itself, which invites us to evaluate lying not only as a moral problem, but also as an aesthetic challenge—to ask whether a lie can ever be elevated into an art form.
From the December 2018 issue: An open letter to Elena Ferrante—whoever you are
We might ask this question of all of Ferrante’s writing. Her fiction teems with liars of every age, from the insecure children of her beloved Neapolitan quartet, to the anguished adults of her early novels, to Elena Ferrante herself, an authorial persona who claims that she resorts to lying to shield herself. Unlike the Neapolitan quartet, which spans more than half a century in the lives of two friends, The Lying Life of Adults concerns itself with adolescence—a time when deception and self-deception loom large, and growing up means learning to catch oneself and others in the act of lying. Everything that entails—ridding oneself of childish illusions, recognizing the hypocrisy of adults, suffering romantic disappointment—is standard fare for novels of adolescence. But for Ferrante, whose novel bestows on familiar experiences an ardent, unreal shimmer, growing up also involves learning how to cultivate a talent for deception that approaches a talent for writing fiction.
The quartet began with intensity, in a violent, working-class neighborhood of Naples, but The Lying Life of Adults opens amid the educated, affluent, and peaceable. Giovanna’s father is a teacher at a prestigious high school and an aspiring Marxist intellectual, “an unfailingly courteous man” whose love and admiration she desperately desires. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s best friends, pretty Angela and poetic Ida, are the daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. All seem content in their bourgeois happiness—until the day Giovanna, then 12, overhears a conversation between her mother and father.
Giovanna recalls the conversation from an unspecified present: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” We have no reason to doubt her account. “Those words,” she tells us, “remained fixed” in her mind as a cruel judgment on her pubescent body and poor performance in school. But we soon discover that what her father actually said was worse: She was “becoming like his sister,” her estranged Aunt Vittoria, “a childhood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette,” whose vulgarity and cruelty her noble father has detested for as long as Giovanna can remember.