What makes a good liar? Plausibility, purpose and personalisation: a liar should be credible and committed to their story, and should tailor it to their audience. The best liars are their own most ardent believers; they may also tell the most successful stories. Neurologically, the overlap between lying and storytelling is clear: our synapses fire in similar patterns when we lie and when we narrate fiction. Fiction is the lie we (let ourselves) enjoy most.
In 1889, Oscar Wilde lamented the decay of lying in an essay for The Nineteenth Century, concluding that ‘lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art’; a century later, Patrick Marber in Closer (1997) had Alice say that ‘lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off’. Giovanna, the heroine and narrator of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, might agree. Her teenage lies – about her beauty, sexuality and desires – define the novel no less than the deceits of her parents. Giovanna is the only child of Neapolitans, an idolised academic father and a mother who is a proofreader and teacher. They are enlightened, privileged, superior. She describes her father as ‘unfailingly courteous’ – a big red flag. Early on in the book, she hears him describe her as ugly, or rather as having ‘the face of Vittoria’, an estranged aunt who lives down in the Industrial Zone. Giovanna and her parents are denizens of Rione Alto, a neighbourhood so hilly and affluent that, as Giovanna notes, ‘to go anywhere we had inevitably to descend’ (very north Oxford). This is a book about descent, in every sense of the word. For a while, Giovanna thinks her mother has been sleeping with her best friend’s husband; in fact, it turns out that her father is sleeping with that best friend, Costanza. This plotline, a Neapolitan What Maisie Knew, is probably the highlight of the book. Meanwhile, Giovanna gets to know Vittoria, as well as a gang of dialect-speaking, churchgoing, chaotic teenagers who are improbably delighted to welcome this poverty tourist to their ranks. While Ferrante is generally committed to depicting the choking complexities of family history, the binaries here are cinematically simple. Vittoria and co are Neapolitan Starkadders, smothering, folksy and volatile. Giovanna rebels, through slum-going defiance, unkindness to her mother and sexual near-misses that disgust her. The poor little rich girl starts speaking dialect.
One further plotline is brilliantly funny: Giovanna is instantly infatuated with Roberto, the vaunted escapee who studies in Milan. He has a fiancée, Giuliana, who seems to Giovanna both blessed by love and ravaged by jealousy. Roberto is unlike anyone Giovanna knows, except in one tedious respect: he’s entranced by her. Recently, in an article for The Point, Merve Emre wrote brilliantly on the phenomenon of the Yearning Man in literature: the ‘beta narcissist’ who ‘creates the illusion that the romance of reading can generate a deep, forgetful pleasure, elevating the literary above … worldly concerns’. Roberto is a Yearning Man, and Giovanna’s father is another. Giovanna is his counterpart, the Not Like Other Girls Girl. Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian author who may be female. But, weirdly, Giovanna seems like the stone nymphet of a middle-aged man chipping out his own nubile Galatea. Giovanna professes to believe herself ugly: her breasts are too big; her legs are too thin. She is the sullen Italian iteration of that romantic Anglophone cliché, the heroine with a mouth ‘too wide for beauty’. Aunt Vittoria, of course, says she’s sensationally sexy. The supporting cast of indistinguishable young men, her mother’s lover and her teenage best friend, Angela, all yearn for her. Roberto (perhaps) admires her for her mind: Giovanna’s most banal utterance is treated as a cloud-parting revelation. Finally, just before losing her virginity (to her deeply dispassionate liking), Giovanna completes the set of conquests when Ida, Angela’s precocious younger sister, turns out to adore her as well. At the end of the novel, they head off to Venice.
This single-minded and sometimes coruscating novel catalogues with exactitude the body and brain of its heroine. The characters are erratic, cloying, manipulative and enmeshed. But the experience is disappointing. I salute Ferrante’s determination, expressed in an interview published in The Paris Review, to ‘renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction’. But Giovanna feels like a fantasy of what teenage girls should be – sullen and pneumatic – or once upon a time were supposedly like (this is, after all, a most nostalgic novel).
But whose fantasy: Giovanna’s or Ferrante’s? The Lying Life of Adults is a novel of complexity and paranoia, all pheromones and anatomised self-absorption. Oscar Wilde wrote in A Woman of No Importance that ‘children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.’ Giovanna cannot get past the second stage; I could not do the equivalent with this book.