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Let’s discuss Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults,” this month’s book club pick!
What is a lie? In this month’s Ballerina Book Club pick, “The Lying Life of Adults” by Elena Ferrante, we are encountered with an assortment of obfuscations, deceits and tweaks in meaning, starting with our introduction to our bildungsroman’s narrator, Giovanna. The daughter of affluent parents who trade in words (her father teaches history and philosophy; her mother, Latin and Greek), Giovanna overhears a fateful sentence, uttered from her beloved father to her mother. What she conveys in the opening paragraph is that her father called her “very ugly.” In a sense, this is true. But a more accurate transcription of the conversation reveals that what he had actually said was that she was “getting the face of Vittoria” — her estranged aunt, a “woman in whom … ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.” Or, so she has been told by her parents.
[Editor’s Note: Now might be a good time to stop reading and scroll to the discussion questions if you are sensitive to any sort of spoilers!]
What she knows about her aunt comes in waves of hushed conversations and rushed encounters. So maligned in the family lore, the aunt becomes a fairytale rendition of the evil witch: “She was a childhood bogeyman a lean, demonic silhouette an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls.” Here, Giovanna bristles not so much at the factual ugliness of Vittoria’s face (her memory of this fails), but at the “revulsion and fear” spewed by her parents in reaction to her aunt as a person. By way of fated transference in Giovanna’s mind, the comparison seals her fall from the arms of her doting father into the grips of her family’s nightmare figure. After an emotional evening of despair, Giovanna says: “In the morning I was convinced that, if I wanted to save myself, I had to go and see what Aunt Vittoria’s face was really like.”
The subsequent quest requires descent from her home atop of Naples to the poorer, industrial area of her father’s roots. Noting that arduous journey would require her to venture into unfamiliar territory, she first seeks out photographs of Vittoria to see if she can trace the marks of resemblance. To do so, she must dig deep into her parents’ belongings to unearth images tucked away in a box, where she finds her aunt’s face has been blotted out by neat rectangles filled with black. A dead-end. She probes the opinions of her best friends, inquiring until they let her know that physically, she isn’t ugly, but her anxiety turns her “grim.” (With this information, she tries on the adolescent lie that young girls tell themselves: To be loved, to be happy, to be beautiful, one must simply take on an air of ease. This doesn’t work.) In a fit of bravery, she phones her aunt, only to be met with a horrifying “hello” that was “enough to terrorize” her into hanging up.
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Finally, her parents agree to take her to see the aunt in person. Her father warns her that Vittoria’s words will try to turn the adolescent against him, advising her to “put wax in [her] ears like Odysseus.” Her father shows her the path from their house to her aunt’s on a map, and she learns the topography of Naples by heart — marking a shift in the territories sprung up in her mind. The day comes with a bout of fright, but as if locked into a speeding train, she travels down into her father’s old neighborhood and up the stairs of her aunt’s residence, where she finds Vittoria’s face contains “a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.”
It is here in the doorway that we leave off this week’s reading assignment. And with that, here are some moments to ponder as we gear up to read Sections II and III.
- Let’s start with the heart of the matter: What constitutes a lie? What different forms of lying do the characters take within the first section of the book?
- At the very beginning, Giovanna says:
“But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
What does this reveal about Giovanna’s state of mind?
- Giovanna pins her father’s love for her on her beauty as a child. Later, she goes to lengths to describe the buttoned-up appearance of her father (a sharp contrast to the language used to paint Vittoria) and the importance of clothing in returning home “safe.” How does appearance translate to definitions of character, education and class?
- When Giovanna overhears her father call her “ugly,” she has just begun menstruating. How does Ferrante convey this shift in other aspects of her life and her relationship to the patriarchy?
- What issues of class arise in language and the use (or erasure) of dialect?
- How do moments of willfully not listening factor into the theme of lying? And what role does silence play?
- The black rectangles that Giovanna’s father pens over his sister’s face are referred to as coffins. What little deaths wind their way through the first section?
- What’s the significance of all the time Giovanna spends gazing into mirrors, and how does this contrast with the ways she imagines how others see her?
- What role does education play in beauty?
- How does Ferrante use geography and space to draw the lines of class?
- With this in mind, consider this description of Giovanna’s father from her bourgeois mother: “He had to climb a mountain with his bare hands, and it’s not over, it’s never over, there is always some storm that knocks you down, back to where you started.” What does this description say about classism and the threat that Vittoria poses?
- What about the “evilness” of Vittoria entices Giovanna?
- What are we to make of how Giovanna internalizes the twists and turns of the route from her house to her aunt’s? How does this connect her to the family she’s been cleaved from?
- When Vittoria opens the door, she’s clad in blue. How does this tie into the blue light Giovanna describes at the start of the section?
Top Image: Elena Ferrante's "The Lying Life of Adults," the September pick for Ballerina Book Club.