I read Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults” last Fall, though, in truth, I completed it just after the New Year. In a vacuum, it was pretty fun, if not a life-affecting experience. At the same time, it was somewhat disappointing as my first introduction to her given the level of buzz I’ve heard over recent years.I guess it’s a coming of age story in Naples, Italy, which by itself is a little weird since I think the target audience is adults. That misalignment made me a little uncomfortable, as though I was intruding into the world of youth. A story like this is usually bound to a not particularly illuminating start and end – youth is jarred by life and is a more contemplative person with self agency by the end. What are the forks the road in between? Who are the characters on the way? Are they scarecrows stuck in the fields or are they traveling their own journeys? While there are literal changes in the lives of the Ferrante’s characters, they still end up feeling like the dummies on poles.
The plot and elements are not particularly memorable. A few days after I finished it, I realized that I had already forgotten how it ended (with Sex). The story is about a teenage daughter of two academic parents who live in a ‘respectable’ part of Naples. The father, Andrea, is estranged from his family who also live in Naples, but in the low-class area. The plot follows Gianni as she becomes immersed in the low-class part of her family as her parent’s marriage and that of their best friends collapse with the emergence of what appears to be everyone having had affairs and romances with each other. The first of those dominoes appears at the time that Gianni is first getting acquainted with Vittoria – the volcanic, estranged sister of Andrea. Gianni finds that the reason for her father’s estrangement from his sister is tied to his stepping in to end an affair she was having with a married man. Each revelation moves the plot along but sometimes it felt as though Ferrante just populated characters and mathematically figured out all the possible crossings and set them up as road markers for Gianni.
The characters, on the other hand, are interesting if not taken to be deeper than vignettes and while they are not all likable, it’s enjoyable following them. Maybe a bit like a soap opera, with similar depth.
Ideas and aspects of the book that stuck out to me:
The nature of ‘Academicized’ Families
The academic sensibility if not formal job of Gianni’s father bumps into a number of situations and on reflection, it’s not clear to me if Ferrante is trying to get at a deeper connection of ‘lying’ and the long history of suspicious toward academics as being vaguely hypocritical or obscuring real world truths behind pretension. The four adults from whose lives sends Gianni on journey – her parents and their best (married) friends, are linked by very vague academic/political ties. Their interactions are seen second-hand to be either in service of political study or having sex with one another. To Gianni, the latter ends up being the more central part of their identity than the former. Given Gianni’s lackluster prospects as a scholar, it’s a perspective that is maybe not so surprising and by the end of the book she is quicker to intuit dimensions in people (like her own lust) that go beyond the ability to speak in a pretty manner.
Exhibitionism of School and your performance
School plays a sporadic but not insignificant role for Gianni with at least three consequential aspects in Gianni’s story. It plays out as the setting for which her parents assess pride or shame over who Gianni is for them, it is a setting where Gianni can play out and experiment with bucking the system, and it is a small mirror into the social piece of her life where one’s visibility others is very important. This latter aspect is connected to secrecy in that it is a microcosm of that for which we use secrecy to protect ourselves.
To hide or not?
Naturally, the title being explicit about ‘secrets’, a recurring event is the revelation of a secret. Usually those are secrets about sexual relationships but not exclusively. Gianni’s parents feel a need to keep her academic struggles secret, for example. Gianni wrestles with whether and how to keep details of the visits to her Aunt as secrets from her parents. What is interesting to me is that I think there is a more complex story here about Gianni’s relationship to these secrets. It is not only the adults that have them, but they enter into her life as another manifestation of what it means to grow up where secrets are devices that might serve a purpose – self-protection against prejudices for example. That’s not a direction or a complexity that Ferrante chooses to go into and I suspect that the intent with the book is to fall for the view of secrets as simply that companion to hypocrisy which I think is the actual villain for the author.
That chunk of the book between a jolt and the flight from the cocoon features a landscape populated with many other people, few of which have a role beyond pushing Gianni in her evolution. She has her best friends, she has her Aunt, she has the rich jerk and his friend. There is the family of the man her Aunt slept with, and her eventual first desire of love. I’m surprised she didn’t find room for the ghost of her Aunt’s paramour. In retrospect, many of these seem to be somewhat too obvious as ways to express her dilemmas.