Sunday, September 6, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

 What a stunning writer Elena Ferrante is. Her Neopolitan Quartet left me floored. Her newly released novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is likewise extraordinary.

I don’t know how she does it. Plot-wise, this is a contemporary “dysfunctional family” book and I hate those. Point-of-view-wise, we are in the head (deeply, deeply in the head) of an adolescent girl from ages 12-15, who is full of tween-to-young-teenager angst. (Bleh.) And yet, from the opening pages, I was completely drawn in and could not put the book down.

Giovanna is the daughter of a professor (her beloved father) and a romance novel editor (her doting mother) and life is good. That is, childhood was good. But as she reaches that awkward age, and her body starts to change, she has a self-confidence crisis. When her grades start to suffer, her parents become concerned. One night, she overhears her father compare her face to that of his despised, loathed, hated, ugly sister, Vittoria. Terrified and hurt, Giovanna is compelled to visit her aunt and find out if it’s true.

To say the family is estranged is an understatement. But her parents eventually give in and let her meet her aunt. The woman lives in the neighborhood where Giovanna’s father grew up—the wrong side of the tracks. Her father, through academic achievement, has managed to move up in the world. He claims his sister resents the fact that he got out. He fears Vittoria will turn his daughter against him the way she turned the rest of the family.

That may be true. Vittoria is certainly an unpleasant and untrustworthy character. Nevertheless, Giovanna is as intrigued by her as she is afraid of her. Vittoria does try to turn Giovanna against her father. She insists the girl spy on her parents to see them as they really are.

She does. And she does.

Theirs is not the idyllic family Giovanna once thought.

Over the next couple of years, the family secrets come out, the marriage falls apart, and Giovanna reacts, first self-destructively by acting out and, secondly, slowly, by growing up. It’s a painful process, one that is still in progress at the book’s end.

This is not a novel that I would have chosen to read based on a plot synopsis. But Elena Ferrante is able to make a time-worn story timeless. Highly recommended.

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