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Book Review: ‘The Lying Life of Adults,’ by Elena Ferrante

In a sense, Ferrante’s fiction has long been preoccupied with the notion of being ugly in the eyes of the father — of writing against the grain, against authority and convention. At the center of her work are not just women’s lives — but femininity itself. Dolls are important totems. A bracelet in “The Lying Life of Adults” takes on almost supernatural significance. Reviews of Ferrante’s work note how liberally her work borrows elements of the romance and the potboiler: the unapologetic melodrama, the cliffhangers. She pays serious attention to pregnancy, and to little girls and old women — rarely the subjects of serious fiction.

It was a form born of initial resistance. Ferrante grew up in the ordinary way; that is, believing that if she didn’t win male approval, “it would have been tantamount to not existing at all,” she has written. Only later did she discover the feminist literature that reoriented her thinking. “I realized that I had to do exactly the opposite: I had to start with myself and with my relationships with other women — this is another essential formula — if I really wanted to give myself a shape.” Her work began to draw on the classics as well as the stories in women’s magazines — “a fund of pleasure that for years I repressed in the name of Literature.”

It is the same trajectory she gives Giovanna. The father is dethroned; who will take his place? For a time, the girl finds a substitute in the chaotic allure of her aunt. Then, in another man — the charismatic Roberto. “I now felt him as an authority,” she thinks to herself. He declares her beautiful, and her self-image, blotted away by one man, is restored by another. But in Giovanna reigns a streak of stubborn independence. She reads what Roberto wants her to, but comes to her own conclusions (she finds the Gospels nonsensical and a bore).

She returns to her childhood friends, and crucially, she finds a freedom and privacy in deception, in authoring her own reality — an old theme in Ferrante. As a young woman the writer kept a diary, striving to record her life with absolute honesty. When she became terrified it would be discovered, she planted her “most unutterable truths” in fiction. It’s a move that seems to presage the adoption of her pseudonym and the artistic freedom afforded by anonymity.

Ferrante’s women go so spectacularly to pieces that it is easy to forget that the vast majority of her novels have, if not happy endings, then notes of reconciliation. Her women come through the fire because they are writers; the act of narration becomes an act of mending. Not of truth necessarily; as Lila says in “My Brilliant Friend”: “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”

The pleasure for the reader is often in spotting those moments of disjuncture that Ferrante flags for us, where the narrative is partial or incomplete. But here is where some wobbliness presents itself in the new novel. The mournful opening paragraph — with its caveat that this tale might only be “a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption” — doesn’t square with the story in our hands, of the evolution of a young woman, so brash and sensibly secretive, allergic to banality, prone to fabrication but honest with herself about her desires. Ferrante leaves many threads dangling; we’re left to wonder at the initial forecast and the novel’s enigmatic, oddly heroic conclusion: What is this progress that seems to contain the seeds of regression? When is a revolt indistinguishable from a retreat? There might very well be a word for it.

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