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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

the lying lives of adults by Rona W. '23

by elena ferrante

A few weeks ago, I was reading Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and someone asked me what it was about. I said that I wasn’t sure, but if I had to guess, it seemed to be about an affair but not the usual aspects of an affair that novels were concerned with, like whether or not the betrayed party would find out. Here, the affair seemed to be the most visible manifestation of more important, more illegible conflicts bubbling in each character. My friend responded, you claim you don’t know but then you can say all this. But to be honest, I’ve finished that book now and I still don’t know if I know what it’s about.

This is a long-winded way of explaining that I just finished reading The Lying Lives of Adults by Elena Ferrante, a book that feels inscrutable. It is about a girl in Naples who, over the course of her adolescence, learns of many deceptions that are mostly related to sex. Sex seems to be this insuppressible force, much like a tsunami, that controls all adults regardless of social class. The narrator’s high-status father engages in an affair with her best friend’s mother; the narrator’s impoverished aunt falls in love with a thief. The narrator becomes infatuated with a man who seems too brilliant and too kind to be bound by such fleshly desires, but eventually it is revealed that he, too, is willing to betray his fiancée for a night’s pleasure.

I suppose the book is more of a collection of observations about human nature, about human relations, than a manifesto veiled in a fictional narrative. Maybe I’ve been reading a lot of books like that lately. When I was in high school, our English teacher wanted us to write essays that analyzed books for having a specific thesis. Back then, I composed sentences like, “In The Stranger, Albert Camus uses the motif of the stifling sun as a metaphor for Meursault’s super-ego to criticize the societal constructs of funerals and legal proceedings as superficial ways to maintain a facade of order in a chaotic world.” Every novel was a vehicle for the author to inflict their demands upon the reader. 

To be fair, there are certain criticisms in The Lying Lives of Adults. I sense that Ferrante is critiquing our deceptions, to our own selves and also to others; at the end of the novel, when the narrator loses her virginity to a straight-talking boy just because she wants to, as opposed to exchanging it for social capital (as her aunt suggests she do), she is refusing to participate in much of the same deception that has governed the other characters. Yet deception lubricates the societal wheels of Ferrante’s universe and make it bearable for these people to live in a socially stratified city, with all the humiliations that come with being institutionally subjugated.

These days, I find myself reaching for the books that don’t allow for easy answers. I’ve always wanted to know the truth, the truth, as if it is one obtainable thing to be held and admired. But I suspect I’ll be searching for the rest of my life.