FLORENCE - At my local book shop, Todo Modo, co-owner Pietro Torrigiani is stockpiling copies of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, “La vita bugiarda degli adulti.” The book, which will arrive in the United States as “The Lying Life of Adults” in June, is flying off the shelves - not just at eclectic indie shops like Todo Modo, but also at supermarkets and highway rest stops.
Here in Italy, Ferrante’s writing has broad, quietly unifying appeal in a politically fractured country. (Her new novel’s release coincided with the birth of the Sardines, a grass-roots movement packing Italy’s squares in protest of the far-right League party and its leader, former interior minister Matteo Salvini.) Ferrante remains popular despite backlash from some Neapolitans and literary critics uneasy with the success of an author working behind a pseudonym who many people suspect is translator Anita Raja.
“Italians, and perhaps Neapolitans especially, we’re always inclined to criticize our city and the people who live in it. When there’s a local excellence like this, like Ferrante - well, we tend to minimize it,” says Fiorella Squillante, a tour guide in Naples.
Author Nicola Lagioia, who directs Turin’s International Book Fair, says many critics have had a similar reaction: “In Italy, if there’s one thing that’s unforgivable, it’s success.”
“Before the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante had a decent audience and Italian literary authorities loved her,” he explained. “Once she had such incredible success, critics suddenly started turning up their noses a little.” It’s a kind of intellectual distancing that “always happens in Italy, unfortunately,” Lagioia said, recalling reactions to Umberto Eco’s postmodern classic “The Name of the Rose.”
Lagioia’s nod to Ferrante skepticism among Italy’s highbrow critics holds up even as momentum and media attention have been steady. Parties in the guise of reading vigils took place up and down the peninsula on the eve of the novel’s Nov. 7 publication. Robinson, the cultural supplement to Italian daily La Repubblica, closed out November with an exclusive Ferrante cover story and a tease of a title, “My Brilliant Lie.” In the months following, Ferrante’s name has stayed front and center: Continued book sales have probably been fueled by the ubiquitous trailer for “Storia di un nuovo cognome” - Part 2 of the television miniseries adapted from the Neapolitan novels. After early screenings at select Italian cinemas, the new season will make its small-screen debut on Feb. 10 on Italian state broadcaster RAI.
There’s so much hype, both here and abroad. So it’s understandable if American readers - who still have months to wait for the book - want to know whether the book lives up to it. How does “La vita bugiarda degli adulti” compare to Ferrante’s previous best-sellers?
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I finished the book just after Thanksgiving, and I can tell you - without spoiling your experience - that if you are a fan of the Neapolitan novels, you will probably be satisfied. You’ll recognize many of the elements that made the series so addictive: the fraught friendships, the heady descriptions of Naples, the wow-she-went-there ways of spelling out familial unmentionables.
This time, though, the new novel’s adolescent protagonist, Giovanna, lives in the well-to-do hilltop neighborhood of Vomero with her leftist parents, both high school educators - a far cry from the rough-hewed Rione Luzzatti of “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù.
This pivot underscores Ferrante’s sharp insight into the duality of Naples, something that has resonated with local readers, including tour guide Squillante. An avid Ferrante fan who leads occasional excursions through Rione Luzzatti, Squillante, like Giovanna, grew up in Vomero; today, she lives on the edge of the poverty-ridden Rione Sanità.
“The sad thing is that these two Naples still exist,” Squillante said. “Ferrante describes this reality perfectly. You need only move 500 meters from wherever you are, through the side streets, to find the city’s other faces.”
Class chasms are present as ever in “La vita bugiarda degli adulti.” Set in the 1990s, the story opens on Giovanna’s memory of overhearing her father, Andrea, call her “very ugly,” comparing her unfavorably to his estranged sister Vittoria. Andrea’s offhand remark inflames 12-year-old Giovanna’s pubescent insecurities, creating domino effects that crack open the calm of their routines. Central to the tension is Vittoria, who lives in the lowest part of Naples, with all the attendant metaphors that implies. Giovanna, charmed by her aunt’s flagrant manner and her links to the roots that Andrea rejects, forges a relationship that gradually exposes the extent of her family’s hypocrisies.
Some Italians might find Ferrante’s subject matter too insular. Tuscan academic Gino Tellini, professor emeritus of Italian literature at the University of Florence, described Ferrante as “shrewd, expert and effective, but too connected in a visceral (and sometimes biased) way to the Neapolitan setting! The world is much bigger.”
And yet, Ferrante has become a global phenomenon. Her Neapolitan novels sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, and HBO partnered with RAI for the miniseries.
For many readers, Ferrante’s Naples - its sentiments and social dynamics, its unrepentant naming of the previously unnameable - has made the world feel smaller. Perhaps that is the real root of Ferrante’s appeal, both in Italy and abroad, and the reason “La vita bugiarda degli adulti” will keep selling.