Once beliefs are established, presenting people with contradicting facts does little to dislodge them — opinions are rooted less in evidence than in emotion and the views of one’s social group. However, people are particularly open to new ideas during the turbulent years of adolescence and early adulthood. This is the time of life that Italian novelist Elena Ferrante specializes in excavating, in the globally bestselling “Neapolitan quartet” and now in her new novel, “The Lying Life of Adults,” translated once again by Ann Goldstein.
Giovanna is a young teenager, the beloved only child of two studious academics who live in the respectable part of Naples, high in the hills. Giovanna’s father was born into poverty in one of Naples’ low-lying, rough neighborhoods, familiar to readers of “My Brilliant Friend,” but he has cut family ties and erased his past.
Ferrante begins Giovanna’s story at the moment when the web of illusions, lies and euphemisms her parents have woven is blown away. Giovanna begins to struggle in school and feel uncomfortable in her own body, and she overhears her parents criticizing her academic performance, which her mother attributes to the pitfalls of adolescence. “Adolescence has nothing to do with it,” her father says, “she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”
Vittoria is Giovanna’s father’s much-hated sister. “My father always talked about his sister obscurely,” Ferrante writes, “as if she practiced shameful rites that defiled her, defiling those around her.”
Ferrante conjures the raw emotions of adolescence, when an overheard, offhand remark can sear like a branding iron. Giovanna searches for a picture of the maligned Vittoria — but finds that her image has been excised from all old photos.
Giovanna begs to visit Vittoria and see her face for herself. When she first sets out to meet her aunt, Giovanna says, “My father seemed to me an extraordinary man, my mother a really nice woman, and the two of them were the only clear figures in a world that was otherwise confused.”
But Giovanna’s notions of right and wrong are overturned as she meets the forceful, unforgettable Vittoria, a housecleaner with a fifth-grade education who remains always in the grip of her passions and resentments. In her blunt way, Vittoria reveals to Giovanna a new perspective about her father’s past.
Vittoria’s revelations set Giovanna on a journey of self-discovery, full of turmoil, teenage petulance, doomed crushes and bad sex, but they ultimately provide her with the foundation to evolve from a cosseted daughter into an independent young woman with ideas of her own.
“The Lying Life of Adults” suggests that as people ascend in society, they may gain outward mastery over their emotions, but in doing so they must lie and deny that they have the same strong urges and impulses as less-educated people.
Giovanna’s coming-of-age story is gripping, but what makes this novel indelible is Ferrante’s voice. As in her other novels, she convinces the reader to feel she’s the only person to ever reveal the complete truth. “The Lying Life of Adults” reads like an intimate confession or urgent confidence, and it will leave the reader as shaken and invigorated as it does its young protagonist.
Jenny Shank’s novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. She teaches in the Mile High MFA Program and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.