Elena Ferrante, “La Vita Bugiarda Degli Adulti,” Mini Review

by Miriam Ronzoni on May 1, 2022

Elena Ferrante La vita bugiarda degli adulti | Letizia Jaccheri

I read Ferrante’s latest novel (the title of the English translation is The Lying Life of Adults) over the Easter break and it felt like coming home. I don’t know whether I am prepared to say that it is “objectively” better than her other stand-alone novels (other than the Brilliant Friend saga, I mean), but it spoke to me in a way that they didn’t.

I liked them all, don’t get me wrong – and in one or two cases (e.g. The Lost Daughter), even very much; but none of them gave me that feeling of loss and grief which I got when I finished the Neapolitan saga. I am sure many readers know the feeling I am talking about, although not necessarily related to those books. I still remember thinking, for weeks, “why bother starting off a new novel? I already know it won’t be about Lila and Lenù, so…”

Well, La Vita Bugiarda Degli Adulti gave me that feeling again. And, call me predictable, but I really wish this is the beginning of a new saga (I have no reason to believe that it is, but if you have any intel, please share it). I want to see Giovanna (and her friend Ida, and Ida’s sister, and Giuliana) “become adults like no one else has before” (my own translation from the Italian, I have no access to the English translation); I want to see whether her male peers – and Roberto in particular – will disappoint or not; I want to see whether the adults in her life will age gracefully or bitterly; and, finally, I want to see how Giovanna’s Naples will evolve, and which other cities she will escape to.

In a way, the reasons why this book can enchant fans of the Neapolitan saga are quite obvious: it contains many of the the same tropes – the coming of age theme; the realisation that those around you are lying, but also that they are just doing it to survive; the ambivalent relationship with Naples, or better put with the many Naples out there.

I am not sure this is everything, though. My hunch is simply that Ferrante is amazing at girls even more than she is at grown-up women. Her portrayal of female childhood and adolescence is just unique, and feels so raw and true to so many female readers (this one included, of course). I don’t know whether I can quite put the finger on why that is the case. One big thing for me, for sure, is how her girls are simultaneously well-rounded characters that are wholly believable as (present and future) heroines, and yet so full of self-loath in a way that, sure, almost always comes with puberty, but especially with female puberty. You know how feminists teach us that navigating inadequacy and indeed self-disgust is a big part of what it means to become a woman (to come of age) in the patriarchy, like a rite of passage of sorts? Yup, that, just in story-telling. So, quite naturally, a book that is entirely about that coming of age phase – and about looking at adults with increasing disenchantment and understanding at the same time – just hit the spot for me in a way that her other stand-alone novels, all about adult women, did not. In the Neapolitan Saga, I remained attached to Lila and Lenù also later in life, but it was because I knew their story, I knew where they came from. I knew why they couldn’t possibly step out of their  f****d-up dynamic of mutual admiration, deep intimacy, mutual judgement and fierce competition (also over men, of course!), all mashed up together in a hot, interesting mess. I concur with those who say that the saga captures female friendship with all its ambivalences like no other work of fiction had done before. But it is as girls, as women-in-the-making, that we learn the patterns and modalities of that special kind of relationship – which then stay with us, whether with girlfriends we have since childhood or with female friends we make as grown-up women. So maybe the great thing about the saga is how it makes the case that learning to “do” female friendship and becoming a woman, period are largely one and the same thing. With Giovanna we have another great example of that.




Terence Rajivan Edward 05.01.22 at 7:12 pm

Thanks for the review. I wonder whether Ferrante will face the criticism of not understanding girls growing up in the age of the Internet. Sorry, could not resist! Happy May Day!


TM 05.02.22 at 12:40 pm

I’ll come out and say it: I didn’t like Ferrante at all. I found the Napolitan saga exoticizing the people of Naples and I very much suspect that much of the appeal of her books is based on this exoticism, which I find unbearable. I also found the German translation really crap, and perhaps some of my dislike is due to the translation not the original.

Now my opinion isn’t important and can safely be ignored, and all the important opinions say that Ferrante is genius, but I do want to ask: am I alone in thinking that this exoticism, the casting of poor people in postwar Naples as almost a different species, might be a problem, or do you not perceive this as exoticism at all?


novakant 05.02.22 at 4:32 pm

Thank you for your review. I loved the Neapolitan Quartet and also the TV series, (though it’s a good idea to read the books first). For me, the longitudinal aspect of it is gives it a unique depth.

After finishing it, I considered The Lying Life of Adults, but chose Days of Abandonment instead, which is a very raw and honest. I’m looking forward to reading the former now.

TM, no, I didn’t have a problem with that, in fact I think the that class is treated in a much more complex way in the book, than you make it seem.


Bob 05.02.22 at 5:59 pm

I also don’t have a problem with the way that the poor in Naples are presented in the “Brilliant Friend” series. On the contrary, rather than presenting that class and their norms and mores as exotic or foreign, I felt that Ferrante struggled to highlight just how “un-exotic,” normal and mainstream they were. One of the recurring themes of the series is that educated elites on the left, with their top-down, abstract Marxist analyses of their society, are out of touch with the lived reality of poor and working class people, and, as a result, they fail to understand what drives and motivates them.


Miriam Ronzoni 05.03.22 at 8:58 am

Hi TM, as others below have already said, I not only did not have a problem, but (as an Italian myself)*, I did not see any exoticism at all. I would be interested in hearing why you found that to be the case? I find her portrayals very realistic indeed, actually. Another issue is that, although Ferrante’s identity is anonymous (there are speculations, though), Naples and in particular the interplay between different Naples (with working class/middle class being a major axis) are so omnipresent in her work that I find it hard to believe there is no autobiographical component whatsoever here. Upward mobility “within” Naples (across different kinds of Naples, as it were), and the legacy which such “jump” leaves behind, are a theme in several books beyond the Brilliant Friend saga (at least The Lost Daughter and The Lying Life of Adults).

*From the North, though, so my standpoint could be problematised in many ways…


TM 05.03.22 at 12:32 pm

Well I did not find the postwar Napolitans portrayed as “normal and mainstream”. Amid the deep poverty, routine violence, crime, mafiosos and so on there is hardly anybody portrayed as a decent, functional human being.
It is interesting how these perceptions differ. I find it surprising that so many middle class readers from countries like Germany, US or Netherlands say they find those Napolitan childhood experiences so relatable.

This is a different question of course from whether they are authentic or realistic. I guess you have to have studied (or experienced) living conditions in postwar Naples to judge the realism of the storytelling.


hix 05.03.22 at 6:16 pm

As a rule, post war generations everywhere where pretty fucked up, with or without mafia. They were often functional in the sense of being able to work , at least in one of the many manual task were still to do. Literal heavy lifing works quite well with a very bad functioning brain for quite some time. And if people did not function even doing that, suicide rates and other early death solved the problem without many talking about it.

I did enjoy the second season of the amica geniale tv adaption without necessarily wanting more of the same. Yes there´s a dysfunctional mafia quarter with a violent boss – that quarter also got a normal economic miracle and violence was much more widespread evrywhere in the post war period. Having a depiction of black white original content periods in colour alone is a great feature. A lot is rather non subtile, or sure utterly unrealistic, it is a movie after all. E.g. the level of social isolation combined with the class disadavantage – no way that still works out to an excellent academic performance (who is supposed to be the geniale one anway, for me it was the one who did not study,…. ). Buh, it is a movie after all.

Take bastardi di piazzafalcone as a counterpoint: Mafia only to set the scenary and funny characters as a background noise to the corps of the weak arround upper class family drama and the like, even a sociopathic mass murder monc as a bonus! The film version also got opportunity to show of lots of nice scenary. Maybe parts of that series are more realistic – more relatable progtagonists, no way.

A holier than you attitude towards stereotypes, even correct ones in popular depiction helps no one. It´s not like one can handle cultural difference without stereotypes in the first place… the difference in competence is more in getting roughly correct averages, accepting that way of live, including its possible upsides and the ability to know when it is time to stop handling individuals or sub groups based on the general stereotype.


Bob 05.04.22 at 12:06 am

Coincidentally I came across this:

This quote from the article expresses very well the point that I was trying to make:

“Not only is education no guarantee for moral integrity, the series seems to be saying, but the longer one spends absorbed in the world of ideas, the more numbed his instincts risk becoming to material realities. In this third season, the educated classes spend an awful amount of time crafting catchy slogans for banners and street protests, or pontificating on the meaning of revolution, and still failing, when it comes to it, to shelve the formulas they’ve learned from books and substantially empathize with other people.”

People have focussed, rightly so, on the more universal aspects of the story, regarding Lenu and Lila’s relationship–aspects that women in particular seem to relate to regardless of cultural or class background. But there is also a very important, more local, political theme that highlights the huge class divisions in Italy at the time, in the face of which the analytical tools of the left at the time were useless. One of the things that you sense towards the end of the “Brilliant Friend” series is the feeling of humiliation that people have toward their past selves. There is the embarrassment of the marches, slogans, and essays–in dead, out-of-touch language–that achieved nothing. There are the “brave” revolutionary red terrorists, who, thirty years later look like buffoonish, petty criminals. There is the recognition on Lenu’s part that, regardless of the politics people espoused, the Italian elites were just as venal and corrupt, although less obvious about it, as the thugs in the rione in Naples.

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