Snarls and splinters of female adolescence

Italian author's first novel in five years looks at class divides, a fractured family and a young woman in turmoil



By Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Europa Editions/ Paperback/ 442 pages/ $30.90/ Pre-order at

4 stars

"Two years before leaving home, my father said to my mother that I was very ugly."

So begins the stunner of a paragraph that opens Italian author Elena Ferrante's first novel in five years, The Lying Life Of Adults.

These words may seem to fix the fate of Giovanna, who is 12 when she hears them uttered. Really, they unmoor her.

"But I slipped away," she says, "and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story... nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption."

Few authors are as elusive yet unflinchingly, unerringly evocative as Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the Neapolitan Novels (2012 to 2015), which took the world by storm with their depiction of a complex female friendship.

In The Lying Life Of Adults, she returns once more to the grit of Naples, and to the snarls and splinters of female adolescence.

What Giovanna's father actually says is that she is beginning to resemble her aunt Vittoria, a woman in whom "ugliness and spite were combined to perfection" and who has allegedly poisoned the rest of his family against him.

In Giovanna's impressionable teenage mind, her father's words fix themselves as prophecy: She is destined to become what he despises.

But now she is obsessed with finding out more about this unwanted future, so she seeks out Vittoria. From this point, the foundations of her comfortable family unit begin to crumble as lie after lie is exposed.

Giovanna - smart, sensitive and self-absorbed - is beset both by raging insecurity and a melodramatic teenage conviction that the world revolves around her problems.

Having spilled a secret, she prays to God to put things back in order, "because if he didn't, everything would collapse. San Giacomo dei Capri would tumble onto the Vomero and the Vomero onto the entire city, and the entire city would drown in the sea".

Ferrante illustrates the class divide through Giovanna's traversing of Naples. To see Vittoria, she must literally descend from her middle-class home in the highest part of the city to the bleak depths of the Industrial Zone, where the people speak the Neapolitan dialect her father has banned in their house.

Her father escaped the neighbourhood through his intellect, but Vittoria remains entrenched in it. Coarse, magnetic and tempestuous, she works as a cleaner to support the three children of the woman whose husband she stole. To Giovanna, she possesses a "beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity".

Sex, the driving force that underpins most of the characters' actions, is desirable in the abstract and discomfiting in its physicality. Having chosen to rebel by leaning into the ugliness her father predicted for her, Giovanna chases meaning in man after man - though sex, when she experiences it, proves appallingly banal.

Having discovered that adulthood is fundamentally adulterous, she learns to weave lies of her own. How much of a woman is the story she tells others of herself?

This is an especially weighted question from Ferrante, who has insistently aligned her anonymity with her authorship despite attempts to expose her identity.

As Giovanna warned at the beginning, this is not a story of redemption or anything like closure. It is, however, one of a young woman starting to make meaning of herself.

If you like this, read: The Neapolitan Novels by the same author and translator, beginning with My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012, $19.26, available at, a coming-of-age story about the friendship between Elena and Lila, who grow up in a poor, violent neighbourhood in 1950s Naples. Their paths diverge when Elena's parents allow her to continue schooling but Lila's do not.

  • This article includes affiliate links. When you buy through affiliate links in the article, we may earn a small commission.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2020, with the headline Snarls and splinters of female adolescence. Subscribe