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!

Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, 2014)

In this autobiographical novel, Édouard Louis retells his troubled childhood as a gay boy growing up in a rural working class family. In the first part of the book, he sets the background by relaying the daily life of the village and his family – a milieu he grew in opposition to. In the second part, he focuses on his sexual awakening and his attempt at escaping the village.

Before I delve into the content of the book, I think it’s important to note that I’ve read this novel in its original language – French. It was first published in France in 2014 and was translated into English two years later by Michael Lucey (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I haven’t read the English translation but heard that it didn’t quite convey the subtleties of language of the original version. I can see why this would be, as there is a constant opposition between the narrator’s elegant prose in a perfect written French, and his family’s mundane and vulgar spoken words. I also read that it was pretty much a best-seller in the US, although it was criticised in France for its coarse language and crude representation of the working class poor. 

Mais d’abord, on ne pense pas spontanément à la fuite parce qu’on ignore qu’il existe un ailleurs. On ne sait pas que la fuite est une possibilité. On essaye dans un premier temps d’être comme les autres, et j’ai essayé d’être comme tout le monde.

But first, we do not naturally think of running away because we do not know that there is an elsewhere. We do not know that an escape is possible. At first, we try to be like the others, and I have tried to be like everyone else. (Translation my own)

There’s no denying it is a very coarse and raw book. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, as I can think of one scene in particular which involves children experimenting with sex, and it was just very hard to read. It is a violent book – and quite graphic at times. But it feels real – I’d say sometimes too real for me. It very much felt like reading Elena Ferrante, if she made her characters speak as rudely as they would in real life. Of course, this is an autobiographical novel so the point is not to know whether such and such happened exactly as they are told. Rather, the idea is to translate the feelings and the essence of a little boy’s life in a working class family in the North of France – the shameful trips to the food bank, or the humiliation of asking the shopkeeper to keep a tab.

Louis went on to do prestigious studies and he knows his Bourdieu and sociological theories very well – he edited a collection of Bourdieu’s works in 2016 and you can read this interview from the Paris Review about it, which is really interesting. Yet, what really struck me in his writing is his political defence of the working class, but also his dire need to distance himself from his family’s ways to the point of complete rejection of his origins – illustrated by his throwing his Airness hoodie – a prized posession in his vilage but a tacky piece of clothing in the city – in a public bin. (That being said, I was shocked that he would get rid of an Airness jumper because I remember how cool it was to wear one in school – which tells you a little bit more about my background I guess) Although I believe that he needs to reject completely the values of his relatives in order to be himself, because he could never fit into the mould of toxic masculinity often encouraged where he is from.

I don’t read a lot of modern books about life as a working class poor, but I’m not sure if there are so many on the market anyway. It’s nice to read a different kind of voice, someone who isn’t from the Parisian middle-class elite, someone who knows what they’re talking about and doesn’t try to paint people from unprivileged backgrounds in a (un)flattering light, but just expose things as they are. That’s why I’m so excited by the creation of Harper North, the northern sister of Harper Collins! I am really fascinated by the North of England (no, it has nothing to do with Brontës…) and I cannot wait to read the new voices they discover.

In summary, The End of Eddy is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who would like to see a different side of France than the one usually portrayed on this side of the channel. I talked a lot of about class, but I also think this book is about masculinity and how dangerous a certain branch of it can be – to women of course, but to men themselves as well. I have talked about childhood here and the vicious circle that comes with being from a certain background here, so I won’t talk about that in too much details. But this book is the kind of book that you read in a couple of days (or even less if your attention span is better than mine) and that will stay with you for a lot more. A political novel that will give you food for thought, for sure!