I was eager to jump into Elena Ferrante’s latest release, La vita bugiarda degli adulti. After reading the Neapolitan novels, I expected to be sucked into a riveting story, excellently crafted, with rich characters whose daily lives were bolstered by their authentic socio-political background. I was not disappointed. Ferrante delivers here what audiences have come to expect of her — perhaps a little too much — in a tale that is at once familiar to readers of the Amica geniale series and an elaboration of topoi left only hinted at there.
Despite my best efforts, it was impossible for me to read La vita bugiarda degli adulti without thinking back to Elena, Lila, and their circle of friends in the Neapolitan novels. Believe me. I tried. But readers of the earlier series now made ubiquitous by the HBO television adaptation will find it difficult not to identify traces of Elena and Adele in Ferrante’s latest first-person narrator, Giovanna, or elements of Lila in her aunt, Zia Vittoria. The earlier Rino seems reincarnated here as Corrado. The smug, but not unkind Rosario recalls Michele Solara (or what Michele Solara might have looked like had his upbringing been still more privileged); echoes of Nino Sarratore — and his personal devolution — persist both in the idealized figure of Roberto and in Giovanna’s father, Andrea, once unmasked. Alfonso Sarratore’s tranquil disposition is transposed onto a mildly altered Tonino here. Themes of betrayal, secrecy, sexual awakening, belonging, education, social climbing, and complicated friendship linger, as if unresolved thoughts pushed from one generation to the next. The whole thing reads a little as a re-hash of a tried and true formula; a (more) modern reliving of transcendental trends moved up a few neighbourhoods in Naples and forward a few decades.
The book follows Giovanna — a thirteen year-old at the book’s start — on her quest to meet and know the black sheep of the family, Zia Vittoria, to whom she has been compared. In literary terms, Vittoria is a foil to everything about Giovanna’s upbringing. Andrea, Vittoria’s brother and Giovanna’s father, studied his way out of his backwards-thinking rione in lower Naples all the way up to the posh and cultured neighbourhood of Posillipo. He builds his life on fundamental principles of civic responsibility, a classic education, and open communication. He and his well-to-do wife, Nella, raise their daughter with the freedoms of the mentally and socially evolved, in the absence of God or religion, surrounded by books and friends of high status. Their life seems happy, tranquil, and simple. Everyone gets along. Adults never quarrel. Affection is a daily manifestation. Sex is talked about frankly, openly, scientifically. Vittoria, instead, is a loud and imposing woman, unafraid to shock and offend and eager, it seems, to cause a stir. Decades later, she holds onto a grudge against her brother, who deemed it necessary to undermine her relationship with a married man. In and through Zia Vittoria, Giovanna discovers a well of secrets that upturn her existence and reveal the circularity of history. More importantly, she is exposed to the people and kind of thinking that will lead to a sexual awakening and loss of innocence that Ferrante deftly weaves into the tormented thoughts of a teenager deciphering her body for the first time, and trying to make heads and tails of her existence on Earth.
Giovanna’s story could just as easily have been Elena’s story. In a way, it is, and that’s the point. Though readers of my generation might assume her story to take place in the 1990s, the book is undated because the tale it tells is timeless. Indeed, Giovanna’s first experiences with love and lust mirror, to a large extent, those of her parents, whose own trajectory, despite its socially respectable context, closely resembles Vittoria’s in the slums of Naples. The book hinges on this circularity, very obviously highlighted by its central symbol: the bracelet — a bracelet which, literally, changes hands, is lost, is found, all within the same circle of people, until it is eventually discarded in a quite obvious attempt to break the cycle of behaviour informing Giovanna’s life.
Had Ferrante’s craftsmanship stopped here, I would hardly be telling you about it now. It doesn’t. La vita bugiarda degli adulti, yes, reimagines some themes that have been dominant in Ferrante’s earlier writing. But it also elaborates upon some new less explored ones, moving onto more socially relevant terrain. Where the Amica geniale series only hints at a relationship between Elena and Lila that goes beyond mutual appreciation — and competition –, here, those unexplored feelings of sexual confusion and experimentation are rendered specific. Through the characters of Angela and Ida, Giovanna’s childhood friends, Ferrante presents frankly different models of sexual orientation. Bisexuality and pansexuality come across here as identities rooted in childhood and manifested early in life. They are explored with almost the same intensity as Giovanna’s more heteronormative inclinations and are afforded important space in her narrative of sexual confusion. Giovanna’s own feelings, furthermore, are predicated on a fundamental difference — as she comes to understand it — between lust and love. Female sexual pleasure, and its earliest manifestations in childhood games among friends, are not only alluded to, but specifically outlined here. With her characteristic aplomb and naturalness, Ferrante describes the pleasure her female characters derive in a variety of different sexual scenarios. Without apology or explanation. Without hesitation. In this respect, she breaks new ground.
New, too, is the conception of personal evolution in her characters. It might be tempting to call La vita bugiarda degli adulti a coming-of-age story and to insist on its obvious circularity. In many ways, it is, not only for its protagonist, but for all the representatives of her generation. But I think it would be more accurate to view it as a series of points on a vector map. Giovanna’s life moves in spirals from the age of thirteen, when readers first meet her, to the age of sixteen, when she alone makes her way into womanhood. But her arc of development is only of the many readers see. Her friend and rival in love Giuliana’s development between the ages of seventeen and twenty is like an arrow moving up and off the page into three-dimensional space: she becomes an elevated version of her essential self, neither moving forward nor backward, but simply upward. Her brother, Tonino, instead, moves as a straight line out of his circumstances and into a climate more reflective of his (muted) ambition. Naples, as a character, moves up and down diagonal lines, like the funicular that takes Giovanna from Posillipo to Vomero to lower Naples, where Vittoria and her family live. Ferrante’s characters create an intricate geometrical narrative that moves beyond the circle at its centre and challenges established and acceptable visions of personal growth.
For all its ostensible parallels to the Amica geniale series, I would read La vita bugiarda degli adulti again. That, to me, is the true mark of a successful and well-thought book.
La vita bugiarda degli adulti is available for loan to friends and members of 3E Centre for Italian culture. Send us a message to arrange for your secure pick-up.