The Lying Life of Adults
Allen & Unwin, $32.95 pb, 336 pp
Opening a review with a book’s first line allows a critic to thieve the author’s momentum for themselves. I am in a thieving mood. For the first line of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, carries an enviable wallop: ‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.’ It’s the kind of line – charged, discomforting, and vicious – that makes Ferrante so electrifying to read. Ferrante’s novels are whetstones; her narrators are knives. When we meet twelve-year-old Giovanna Trada in this novel, she is a meek and dutiful creature – clever but incurious; a dewy-eyed admirer of her affluent parents and their hermetic life. Four years later, when Ferrante is finished with her, Giovanna’s heart is a shiv. Here is womanhood, Ferrante shows us once again: a relentless abrasion, a sharpening.
It is difficult to write about Ferrante’s work without becoming distracted by its glittering literary mythology: the tantalising mystery of the pseudonymous Italian writer’s identity and the invasive cruelty of the quest to unmask her; the genre-detonating splendour of her Neapolitan novels (the four-part series that began with My Brilliant Friend in 2012); and the debate this quartet has sparked about how we (de)value the fiction of women’s lives. And – of course – the ever-ratcheting hyperbole. As Ferrante has been consecrated into the modern literary canon, she has been compared to everyone from Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, and Charles Dickens, to Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, and Mario Puzo.