If The Lying Life of Adults, the marvelous new novel by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, doesn’t reach the soaring heights of her masterpiece, The Story of a New Name, that is mainly an issue of the Ferrantean accumulation—deep networks of supporting characters, all with rich inner lives—being limited by the confines of a mere 320 pages. With Ferrante, as with Tolstoy, there is always the implication of a few dozen extra chapters, known only to her.
But Ferrante is at heart a writer of objects. In Lying Life, sharply translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, a single piece of jewelry sets the runaway train of causality in motion. The hot-potato bracelet of hazy provenance will, by the end of the novel, have appeared on six different Neapolitan wrists across three generations of three intertwined families, provoking multiple plot devices of escalating absurdity. It’s almost as if Ferrante wanted to test herself, to see how far she could push her skill with signifiers. What should be ludicrous is instead delicious, as if Tolkien’s One Ring was forged to socially aggrieve.
Objects are useful for novelists because they remain static, while the desire for them reveals inner truths of characters—an excuse for monologue, and for conflict. While everyone wants the Maltese Falcon because it’s worth a lot of money, Ferrante cannily makes her objects relative. In Lying Life, the bracelet’s allure is unique to each character: a means to an affair, or a connection with a long-lost grandmother, or simply a beautiful tool for the desperate-to-impress. And then, just as the bracelet sparks frisson, Ferrante tends to cut away. It’s a technique she also used in the Neapolitan Novels, when an object-oriented cliffhanger produced a moment of page-turning so potent that I don’t just remember what I read, but where: I’m in a suburb of Chicago, my first night of meeting my then-girlfriend’s parents. It’s 3:00 a.m. on Christmas Day, and I’m reading My Brilliant Friend. Lila is getting married to Stefano Carracci, and—betrayal!—in walks the odious Marcello Solara wearing the special brown Cerullo shoes that Lila designed with her brother. The book ends. I creep to my room, rummage in my backpack for the sequel, and go back downstairs, pressing on until people start opening presents around me, the incident rippling for decades.
A similar impact is made by Lying Life’s opening sentence, which quickly takes on deep, life-altering meaning for the book’s characters: “Two years before leaving home, my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” Until this moment, twelve-year-old Giovanna had lived an idyllic life in a nice neighborhood in Naples, but if you remember your own adolescence, you can probably guess that things will soon get messy. Giovanna is a strong lead, a bit of Lila and a bit of Lenu, insecurely obsessed with her appearance to the point that, in contrast to the glittering, golden bracelet, she becomes surprisingly hard to envision. Her father’s insult sparks an adolescent dysmorphia that no compliment can resolve—reading it I could still feel, two decades on, my paternal grandmother pinching at my stomach and saying that no one will ever like me.
That opening, which is written from the perspective of an adult Giovanna, also contains the first of many misstatements. It will quickly be revealed that her father actually said that she’s becoming “like his sister,” the mysterious Vittoria, “a woman in whom… ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.” But when we meet Vittoria, she is neither ugly nor beautiful, but something more, something indeterminate: pure accelerant. Reminiscent of 8 ½’s La Saraghina, she sets the first half of the novel ablaze. Then, unfortunately, she fades out as the action pivots toward Giovanna’s preoccupation with Roberto, a charming religious scholar working on questions of compunction, who provides a counter-balance to her father’s unintentional cruelty.
Giovanna’s father, an educator who descends into a fitful mid-life crisis after he leaves home (Ferrante’s mocking of male intellectual aspirants is always a pleasure), addresses the novel’s instability of meaning during a comma-filled two-page run-on sentence in which he stutteringly explains why he abandoned his family. It’s one of Lying Life’s strangest, most effective scenes. At the end of this dissertation, he pauses for breath, then says:
I don’t know, we perform acts that seem like acts but in fact they’re symbols, you know what symbols are, that’s something I should explain to you, good becomes evil without your realizing it.
Under instruction from Vittoria to spy on her parents, Giovanna gradually learns that adults, in attempting to rationalize this evil that they unintentionally wreak, lie. “Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” she moans—a critical revelation. These lies animate the many pas de deux, and the occasional awkward trois, that Giovanna moves through over the four years of the novel. She, like her aunt, is a shapeshifter, a physical manifestation of evasiveness, always on stage, taking on different roles in relation to dynamic supporting characters who threaten to burst the seams of their roles in the plot. (One very minor character reveals a rash, sighs, says “obedience is a skin disease,” then vanishes forever.)
Giovanna gradually begins to lie herself. To tell stories, in other words. As she gets older, she begins her own project of noticing. “There were moments when everything seemed to have a secret depth and it was up to me to discover it. But it didn’t last.” The book’s tight focus on plot and character gives it an interesting fairytale aspect, but I found myself missing the contextual backdrop of The Neapolitan Novels. It takes a bit of work to find out we’re in the 1990s, and, with an almost total lack of time stamps, too much more work to remember. This is also true of Naples itself, which feels strangely like anywhere—a stark contrast to the wonderful trip to Milan late in the book, where, Giovanna says, “I discovered… the pleasure of converting an unknown place to a precisely known place by adding the name and the history of that street to the name and history of that square, that building.”
But in Giovanna’s upstairs/downstairs city, in Giovanna’s indistinct body, with Giovanna’s bracelet, being is too relative, and shifts too often, for precision. The critic Merve Emre, whose writing on Ferrante is essential, drew my attention to a passage toward the end of the book:
I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.
This is, as Emre notes, about the elusive nature of fiction, but I also read it as commentary on adolescence, when the body’s lines alter, when one begins to shift away from family and toward friendships and crushes. Perhaps Ferrante is a writer of objects because she has to be. The people in her novels move too quickly—blurring around the edges, changing in the background before the camera shutter can do its work. As with the bracelet, Giovanna is caught between too many meanings to know what she really, inherently is. Her project of discovery is the work of the novel.
Lying Life ends in a moment of transit, with a surprising collection of supporting characters assembling around Giovanna, all of whom I’d hoped to learn more about. The novel works as a stand-alone—the denouement resolves the question of the bracelet nicely—but as the opening salvo of a larger work, it would be still more effective. I wanted to go to the shelf, find the next volume in this series, and continue. Let’s hope that’s what Ferrante has in mind.