We did not have the sort of dinner table conversations Italian high schooler Giovanna, had with her parents, when I was a teenager. During a particularly terse exchange one evening in their Naples home, her mother declares: “For fifteen years your father has had another wife.” Giovanna pauses before responding: “And you, too, you have another husband.”
By this stage though, we’re already someway into The Lying Life of Adults (published by Europa Editions, 2020), by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Yet it’s a conversation that may never have occurred, were it not for a comment Giovanna’s father made some weeks earlier, when he likened her to his estranged “ugly” sister, Vittoria.
It drives Giovanna, with her parent’s blessing, to seek out her Aunt Vittoria, whom she has never met, and perhaps learn what provoked her father’s disdainful remark. It is an undertaking that sees Giovanna set off from her well-to-do home on the hill, and venture into the city below, a possibly not so desirable part of Naples, one she has not seen before.
Although she finds Vittoria to be a prickly, intimidating figure, Giovanna nonetheless warms to her. To the point she tells Vittoria of an intimate moment she witnessed between her mother, and Mariano, father of Angela and Ida, two of Giovanna’s friends. Despite assuring Giovanna she will say nothing, it seems Vittoria does not keep her word.
Soon after, Mariano leaves the family home, and her father moves in with his once wife, Costanza. But Giovanna is growing from a twelve year old girl into a young adult, and the family turmoil does little to help her make sense of a world she is becoming more aware of. And in time Giovanna finds herself confronted with a difficult choice of her own.
Should she take a leaf from the book of the adults around her, and follow her heart? Or should she be mindful of the crushing consequences of indulging herself? The Lying Life of Adults is both nuanced and layered; it is a story navigating and intertwining often disparate threads. Or if I were to be less eloquent, one that delves into a can of worms.