Book Review: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Lying Life of Adults is the much awaited latest book written by Elena Ferrante – the first one after the last volume of Neapolitan quartet. It tackles similar issues to her previous works, for instance class, beauty, adolescence, studying, etc. This is not a plot-driven novel and Ferrante focuses more on the evolution of the heroine, Giovanna, as she goes through turbulent changes in her teenage years.

When the novel starts, Giovanna is an adult who is looking back at her 12-year-old self hearing her dad referring to her as ugly, and comparing her to his estranged sister who he thinks is as nasty as her looks might suggest. This comment leads Giovanna to become interested in this aunt, Vittoria, whom she is supposed to look like. Raised in a middle-class neighbourhood of Naples, she goes to meet her aunt down in the working-class area of the city and meets people who are completely different from her wealthy, quiet, and educated friends. It’s tricky to sum up this novel because it’s not so much about what the characters do but rather how they interact and evolve.

It took me a while to write this review because if I’m honest, I have been clueless about this book. It’s haunted me for a while after reading it, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think I felt very frustrated only having access to Giovanna’s growth on such a short period of time. I really hope that there will be a sequel to this book, because I feel like Ferrante is the best at creating character development over the course of a few books – she needs space to say all the things that she has to say.

Even though Giovanna is recalling what happened during her teenage years, she still conveys the feelings of adolescence vividly. Everything is changing around her – her body, the way people look at her, her family… and all her emotions are heightened, especially anger. That makes her sometimes really annoying, but that’s what you get when following a teenage heroine. It is such a strange time of life and I think Ferrante is excellent at portraying this. She’s especially good at depicting the changing body of a girl and how it impacts everything, and also the fear of looking like an older relative because she feels so ugly and awkward. There is also this new way that men have to look at you, and it creates more discomfort but also an ambivalence between hating this new body and using it to gain a certain power over men. Being a teenage girl is to feel a constant angst towards your body and to wish you were anyone but yourself. It might not be the same for everyone, but it certainly was for me and I think this ambivalence of the changing body is beautifully portrayed in The Lying Life of Adults.

And of course, adolescence is the time of first love interests. I won’t go into too much detail, just because I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s pleasure in discovering this story, but love in this book is very reminiscent of the Neapolitan series. There is a clear distinction between the interest Giovanna receives from most boys and men, who are all like animals in the sense that they only expect sex from her. On the other hand, there is the educated young man who transcended his class through studies; he is more spiritual, and pushes Giovanna to better herself on an intellectual level. This figure resembles Nino in Ferrante’s previous series, but we also know later that Nino was in fact not much better than other men in that regard. In this novel, Giovanna falls in love with the idea of this man, his goodness and his kindness – almost like a religious idol. I thought that this was very relevant with the theme of adolescence because we all have this one person that we are obsessed with when we grow up to the point of adoration (whether an actual person or a celebrity).

I would love to be able to read Italian and read Elena Ferrante’s words as she thought them. Ann Goldstein does an amazing job at translating these beautiful novels, but I also know that you always lose something in translation. I remember when I first read Jane Eyre in French and then read it in English – it was like a completely different work and the writing flowed much more beautifully in English. It would be interesting to know what someone who read both the Italian and English versions thinks of The Lying Life of Adults (but that’s also because I’m a bit of language nerd).

If you’re already a Ferrante fan, you can just go ahead and read The Lying Life of Adults; you will find everything you love about about this author’s books. If you’ve never read Ferrante before, it might be a good place to start because it’s rather short and involves a little bit less commitment than My Brilliant Friend and its three following instalments. It’s a fantastic book that will get you hooked on Giovanna’s thoughts, but please be aware that you too will cry for a sequel at the end of your reading. PLEASE, give us another book – I beg!

Have you read this book already? What did you think of it? And as usual, happy reading!

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

When her childhood friend Lila disappears in her old age, Elena decides to write their two intertwined life stories. They both come from a working-class neighbourhood of Naples but whilst Elena goes on to study and become an author, Lila remains in the neighbourhood. This is the premise of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, made up of four tomes: My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave  and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015). The whole series is based on the two friends’ different lifestyles in spite of which they always end up together again, as a constant movement of push-and-pull in which Lina seems to have the upper hand.

my brilliant friend
I am not happy with the original covers of this series. Seriously, it’s not good because it is not a good representation of the content of the book. And personally, I find them a bit ugly – but that’s my opinion. I feel bad because I do like Europa Editions as their work is so important, but I just don’t understand what happened there. I saw that they had released new editions that look quite nice, though!

To me Lila is an embodiment of Elena’s origins, her socio-economic background, and in fact, the Neapolitan working-class neighbourhood which she is desperately trying to escape from, from the youngest age. The movement of push-and-pull between the two friends is Elena’s repulsion and attraction to this neighbourhood she never calls home but always come back to.

new name
This was the most appropriate cover, in my opinion.

Everyone in this neighbourhood is profoundly unhappy and envious of others’ possessions. The unhappiness is transmitted from generation to generation, an inherited burden you must carry your whole life. There is a false sense of social mobility with the Solara brothers, and Stefano Carracci at the beginning, as they have a lot of money and are able to buy new homes outside of the neighbourhood. Except that the new constructions are referred to as ‘the new neighbourhood’ because it is nothing else but a modern extension of the old one. Young people are recreating what they have always known and join the vicious circle of violence and hatred. It’s also interesting to note that Stefano loses his money, which he got from his relatively honest business (even though his father wasn’t really an honest man) because of the Solaras, and so only criminals have access to a comfortable lifestyle – when most characters of the story live in dark and insalubrious lodgings.

In fact, social mobility is just an illusion reserved to women who can fake their backgrounds with the jewels and clothes their lovers gift them. But behind the trendy makeup, they are as unhappy as all the others and they never leave the neighbourhood.

those who leave stay
Spoiler alert: Motherhood is not depicted as a breezy journey, rather, it is a constant conflict between doing what’s good for your children and what your needs are, as a woman.

The neighbourhood is close to the city centre, but seems miles away. It feels like an enclosed space delimited by the stradone. I think it might be why it reminded me so much of where I grew up and my own family history. My mum started to have a look at our family history and since the 1780s, my family have moved in a perimeter of… 35kms. From her side, I am very much an Auvergnate peasant and everyone has lived in the same villages for generations. But when I look at the people around me, I am not sure they’ve ever been truly happy and looked back at their lives with a sense of pride and achievement. I feel harsh writing this words, but when I look back, the adults I had around me as models when I was a child were all deeply unhappy and jealous. Just like Elena, I spent hours wondering whether this was my destiny too, whether I would end up stuck in a place I hate, looking at my wealthier neighbour with envy. Just like her, I went away to study but came back and got caught in the spiral of unhappiness and anger. Finally, like her, I found it hard to leave – physically but also mentally. I’ve been in London for a few years now, but a call to my family brings me right back down to where I was before. I refuse to think about where I come from too much, to talk about it even, but exactly like Elena, I’m always brought back to it when I meet new people, especially in middle class London. But unlike her, I won’t give in to the temptation of the familiar (which I think Nino Sarratore embodies in the novel – he was born in the neighbourhood and left as a child, but Elena kept on loving him for years after that) and I will keep on carving my own path, which I hope will be happy and self-sufficient.

lost child
I’m very sorry for rambling on about these covers, but look at this last one… It makes me question my reading of the books.

I loved, loved this series of books. They were everything the cover doesn’t represent: they were beautiful, complex, thoughtful, and oh so addictive. As this review might suggest they made me reflect on very personal things, and it was sometimes difficult for me to face those thoughts but it’s such a joy to read a book that challenges you on such an intimate level. I realise this is probably just the case for me, but in any case Elena’s story is excellent and relatable at points – no matter where you come from. There is also an HBO show going on, I think series 2 was released recently, I have not watched it yet so I can’t really talk about it but I would be very curious to know how they translated the books for TV!

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

“A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times.”

9780140433913

Louis Trevelyan is young and wealthy English man who meets Emily Rowley during a visit to the Mandarin Islands. Emily is the eldest daughter of the governor of the island and quickly the pair falls in love, and Louis proposes to Emily. Louis and Emily, and her sister Nora goes to live together in London. It is a very happy household, quickly joined by a baby boy.

However, quite rapidly, the marriage of Louis and Emily starts to wither when an old friend of Emily’s father visits her. This old friend is Colonel Osborne and he has the reputation to maintain quite close relationships with married women, let’s say. Louis does not like to have his wife’s name associated with such a man and orders Emily not to see him anymore. She feels hurt by his mistrust and decides to disobey him because she feels like she has nothing to feel guilty about. This lack of obedience drives Louis so angry that he decides to have a separation. Emily and her sister, and the boy, have to go from a relative to another to live as they can – their parents being too far away to be able to do anything at all to help them.

Louis gradually loses his mind for he keeps thinking about his wife’s attitude and whether or not she did have an affair with Osborne. He ends up in Italy and is but the shadow of his former self. Emily joins him there in the hope of winning him back and restore him to health, also because he has brought their child with him. Somehow, Emily manages to convince Louis to come back to England with her to start afresh.

That is the main story of this novel, but being an almost 900-pages book, there are many parallel stories like that of Nora’s suitors and Miss Stanbury’s inheritance, so it is very hard to sum up this great tome in just a small paragraph. There are so many interesting characters and turns in this story, it is so rich that I am not sure whether I am able to do it justice.

“Words spoken cannot be recalled, and many a man and many a woman who has spoken a word at once regretted, are far too proud to express that regret.”

I find very interesting to study relations between men and women during the Victorian era, and I have learnt so much with He Knew He Was Right. For instance, I know that it was not uncommon at the time to send a small photograph of you to the man you love. I thought that this practice really started much later in the century, and I found that very important to see how relationships could evolve. There is a fantastic set of characters of all ages and backgrounds, and so many details, that you get a good grasp of the period. And although, there’s some literary goodness to it of course, I found the style to be of very little importance when it comes to what was actually said.

Trollope was not really an advocate for the rights of women since he was quite Conservative, but with this novel, you could really doubt it. His strongest characters are women who manage to live their lives as they intend to. First, there is Miss Stanbury. She’s a rich old woman, and a spinster. She had a love story with a man in her youth but they never married – it seems to me evident thus, that this dear Jemima lived in sin for a while, which I find quite shocking for such a Conservative woman. She struggles to accept and understand progress, especially when it comes to young women’s dresses and hair – she just cannot stand chignons – and the author makes fun of that with, I think, a lot of tenderness. She is an old woman, and as many old women still today, they love to criticise the new ways in ridiculous terms. But although I laughed at her, I couldn’t help but to notice that she was a very strong woman who deserved respect. She has very strong values, sometimes maybe too strong when she disinherit her nephew who has become a writer for a radical penny newspaper, and she follows them without compromising her heart and feelings. She is well-aware of people wanting to take advantage of her for her money, but she never lets them play too long.

But she is nothing compared to Nora. Jemima Stanbury can afford to be stubborn in her ways, Nora Rowley just cannot. But still, when a rich aristocrat proposes to her, she refuses. She understands all the advantages that such a union would bring but her mouth says no. There was something in the proposal that did not feel quite right, and there was something missing from her as well. Her mind is set on Hugh Stanbury (Miss Stanbury’s nephew) and although, he cannot support her, she decides that she will marry him anyway. It is obviously as romantic as it sounds, but in a very realistic novel like this one, it is more a proof of Nora’s strength.

And then, there is Priscilla Stanbury, Hugh’s sister. She is not rich at all, she is quite plain and fully accepts the fact that she will never marry. And she even clearly states that she doesn’t like men this much. Of course, she’s thought of it because every girl is raised towards that goal and she knows the comfort it would bring her. But she is alright with being single and not knowing love – also because she is very pragmatic and clever, she knows love is not the foundation of most marriages around her. Somehow, she reminds me of Jane Eyre: Jane at first accepts the fact that she has to work for herself and will never be part of the ‘married world’. She is not too sad about it – she seems quite indifferent to it before she meets Rochester – but she still knows that this is not a satisfying life, either.

“If I had a husband I should want a good one, a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man’s wife.” 

It’s no secret that the Victorian society was absolutely patriarchal, but it is very interesting to read about what the impact was on ‘real’ people. I say people because men suffer from this attitude, too. In the novel, the victim is Louis Trevelyan. He slowly becomes mad because of all the pressure he puts on himself: a wife has to obey her husband. And his wife doesn’t, which makes him a bad husband. I do not think he actually cares that much about the details of Emily’s relation with Osborne, what is important to him is his wife’s obedience because that is the way a marriage is supposed to work. He believes what he has been told and thinks that a woman on her own is not much, she has to let her husband guide her towards morality and propriety. However, Emily is not so submissive and she has a rather strong personality and set of principles. She obviously is a victim of Louis’s patriarchal beliefs since she found herself with nowhere to live with her child. A woman had just no right at the time and without her father or husband, she was nothing. Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a brother who helps her find shelter, but Emily only has an uncle who can’t really support her.

Nonetheless, I believe the first victim of this authoritative society is Louis. If he hadn’t has as much pressure to tell him how to behave as a husband, he would not have started this in the first place. But because society expected him to behave a certain way, he acted accordingly and dragged many other victims in his downfall.

He Knew He Was Right is an amazing novel that I can’t recommend enough. Because it is so long it obviously suffers from repetitions, which are sometimes very heavy and boring because you understood the first time you read it, a couple of chapters ago. And although, they had me sighing with exasperation quite a few times, it was nothing compared to the richness of what I was able learn.

The novel was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2004. I haven’t watched it but I read it was quite good and must be probably more digestible than this massive tome!