I initially expected The Lying Life of Adults (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) to offer some indictment of dishonesty. After all, the Italian “bugiarda” (lying) of the title insinuates purposeful deceit. I should have known better. Like Ferrante’s other fiction, the novel resists such a straightforward judgment. Instead, the narrator Giovanna charts the refractive process of telling a story about oneself. Throughout this coming-of-age novel, the detached voice of the older Giovanna intermittently intrudes, reminding the reader of her uncertainty as she molds now-distant memories into a narrative. And, just as Giovanna’s narration discloses the omissions and inventions necessary to tell a tale, so The Lying Life of Adults unfolds to expose the contradictions, confusions, and untruths of adult life.
On the opening page, Giovanna warns us that even as she writes, her sentences might not “contain the right thread for a story” and that the reader may find only “a snarled confusion of suffering.” This focus on writing will not surprise seasoned readers of Ferrante; these words might bring to mind other Ferrante heroines: Elena Greco of My Brilliant Friend and Olga of The Days of Abandonment. There are even echoes of Ferrante’s Paris Review interview, in which she declares that her narrator always “struggles to organize, in a text, what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.” What is particular about Giovanna, however, is how aware she is of the effort required to make the confused coherent.
On the whole, the events of the novel are unremarkable. Giovanna does what most teenagers do. She discovers her parents are not infallible. Fights with her friends. Tests boundaries. Learns new swear words. Tells lies and the occasional truth. She has those early, cringe-worthy sexual experiences. But the narrating Giovanna intervenes to show how she shapes her story. Sometimes, she sheds doubt on the veracity of the events in question, admitting: “maybe that’s not how it went.” Elsewhere, her commentary underlines the inevitability of exclusion and fabrication when working with hazy memories. We can only describe the past as we remember it. At one point, Giovanna concedes: “but here I’m summarizing, I was agitated, I can’t remember clearly.” And, in a line that might distill the very essence of fiction itself, she remarks: “But it’s a pretend dialogue meant to outline a sort of tacit accord between Roberto and me.” Giovanna’s reflections reveal that such alterations are par for the course when we seek to make sense of “a snarled confusion of suffering.” They are part and parcel of the art of storytelling itself.
In the final chapter, an alternate version of the past interrupts Giovanna’s own. Ida, one of Giovanna’s childhood friends, reads Giovanna a short story she has written. Recounted in simple sentences, Ida describes a friendship between two sisters and another girl. Whenever the girl slept over at the sisters’ house, the younger sister felt left out by the nighttime mischief of her older sister and their friend. Ida’s story both mirrors and transforms what Giovanna told us hundreds of pages ago. Giovanna was friends with two sisters: Ida, who was younger, and Angela, who was older and closer in age to Giovanna. But in Giovanna’s version, we were engrossed in the relationship between Giovanna and Angela; Ida’s exclusion was an afterthought. Now, her pain is front and center. With the glimpse into Ida’s reality, Ferrante teases us with the possibility of other stories.
It seems hardly coincidental that Ferrante, whose own “true” identity has been the object of intense scrutiny and speculation, chooses to underscore the act of crafting a fiction about oneself. The constructed nature of identity is brought to the fore in The Lying Life of Adults. In fact, I find Giovanna’s narrative interventions some of the most subtle yet engaging moments of the novel. They take the reader beyond the excruciating experiences of youth to consider how anyone recasts a difficult past. In the end, rather than decry the act of lying, Ferrante highlights the problem of truthfully telling any tale. We can’t. Our stories, much like our adult lives, obligate us to lie.
Alyssa Granacki holds a Ph.D. in Romance Studies and is currently a Postdoctoral Associate at Duke University. Her research interests include Italian literature, women writers, feminist thought, and history of philosophy.