Sinking into the new Elena Ferrante, I had a sudden sense of the intense pleasure Dickens’s readers must have experienced at receiving the latest monthly instalment of one of his novels. How bracing to be back in Ferrante’s Neapolitan world, where troubling passions and moral ambiguity stalk characters of whatever gender, class or degree of righteous illumination. How exhilarating to engage once more with her textured depictions of family life, of friendships and loves striated by hate and the demon envy – all so vividly rendered into English through the skills of translator Ann Goldstein.
Not long after the onset of her menses, 12-year-old Giovanna, daughter of successful teacher-intellectuals who inhabit the heights of Naples, overhears her admired and until now admiring father say to her mother that his daughter has grown “ugly”. She has become like Vittoria, his sister with whom he broke off relations long ago, a woman in whom “ugliness and spite were combined to perfection”.
Her father’s words take on a fiercely performative function for a heartbroken Giovanna. Tall, dark, awkward, big-bosomed, quite unlike her slight and elegant mother, Giovanna is scarred by her father’s indictment. The fall from (his) grace propels her secretly to trace the aunt she has never consciously seen and whose looks she must compare with her own. Her journey takes her down into the Neapolitan inferno from where her parents originally came, insalubrious slums whose furies and passions coalesce in the figure of her aunt.
Ferrante is a superb analyst of the ways in which families, despite their best intentions, distort children’s lives
A semi-literate cleaner, Vittoria is a woman as volcanic as Vesuvius itself and, like Lila in the earlier books, at once tempestuous, pigheadedly proud, and mesmeric. Vittoria also talks dirty. For Giovanna, she becomes a sexualised second mother, one who does indeed seem to resemble her and can oversee her passage into womanhood. Vittoria hates her snotty know-it-all brother, who she claims betrayed her unforgivably. She wants Giovanna for herself and as she pours her rancour into the rebellious girl, now dubbed Gianni, she poisons her against her parents. The settled form of Giovanna’s largely happy childhood dissolves. The dispersal of innocence brings with it the disintegration of her parent’s marriage. Her parents, it seems to Gianni, are as lying and unreliable as spiteful Vittoria has insisted.
Ferrante is a superb analyst of the ways in which families, despite their best intentions, distort children’s lives or propel them in unwished-for directions. These somehow eerily repeat what parents themselves have tried to repress. Women’s desires, too, can lead them directly on to the paths they most ardently reject.
Giovanna’s rites of passage from girlhood to womanhood – played out, like Henry James’s Maisie against the half-intuited movements of her parents’ devastating betrayals of each other – take up some of Ferrante’s favourite themes. As a now “ugly” teenager whose moods soar but mostly tumble and whose concerns are with a body she hates, Giovanna moves from being a brilliant student to being an abject failure. She comes to loathe the bookish world of her parents and the good Italian they speak. Both are scorned by her vituperative aunt, who sees the latter as an utterly false accretion and the former as containers of no knowledge at all.
Meanwhile, the misogyny of young men humiliates her – “just put a pillow over her face and you’d have a great fuck,” one of them says about her, having first commended her bosom and bottom. The next day when the same boy tries to flirt, she jabs a sharp pencil into his arm, accidentally, of course – as if her aunt has seeped into her. But though men may be “pigs” like her lying father, she nonetheless falls in love with his youthful double, both an intellectual and “mansplainer” of high calibre. Surely he’s different, she tells herself, as the truth forces itself on her.
Like a side-shoot that has taken on a life of its own, The Lying Life of Adults shares preoccupations with Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, though the focus here is two generations down the line. Attitudes to sex have grown more permissive in some quarters, but sexuality itself remains both a darkly propelling force and a conundrum. Desire and dissatisfactions live side by side. If adolescents are particularly susceptible to both, its hold over adults is only marginally less powerful.
Through the lies and truths of this compelling novel, Ferrante threads one of her talismanic objects, not a doll this time, but a mysterious glittering bracelet that, as in a fairytale, passes from hand to desirable hand. Who is the fairest of us all may not be the right question for women to ask, or anyone to judge.
• The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published by Europa Editions (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15