Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
I’ve just read perhaps the most anticipated release of the year, and, to summarise in a sentence: there will be those that enjoy (Tony) and those that don’t (me). I thought I’d put that out there at the start, so that you know what to expect in this review.
Do read Tony’s piece as it gives a clear idea of the plot. I’m going to spend my time trying to work out precisely what left such a bad aftertaste, and there will be spoilers.
Firstly the good stuff. This is recognisable Ferrante: a Neapolitan coming-of-age, exploring class and the need to leave the neighbourhood. The teenage protagonist, Giovanna, is about to discover that adults aren’t always what they appear to be; specifically her cherished parents, whose sins become many. The crisis begins when Giovanna overhears her father say that she is becoming as ugly as his sister, Vittoria. Now the estrangement between brother and sister is so complete that Giovanna has never met her aunt, but knows what a toxic character she is. Teenagers being what they are, Giovanna begins to obsess about her, finally asking to meet her. The request is granted. (!) Irresponsible liberal madness or parents bowing to the inevitable? Anyway Father delivers daughter to aunt, but refuses to go in with her (big mistake).The age-old maxim applies. You reap what you sow.
The story goes downhill from here. Both literally (Vittoria’s abode is in the low levels of Naples, where the poorer classes live) and figuratively (her language too – not just her dialect – is of the gutter). She tells Giovanna in explicit detail of her “great” love (the sarcasm is all mine) and so sparks in her niece a curiosity in sex. When Giovanna discovers the truth about her father’s own longstanding love (not her mother), she is disgusted by this thing that reduces reasonable people “to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles”. But Giovanna is of an age, her hormones are kicking in, and experimentation – albeit half-hearted – is the game of the day … You could probably subtitle the novel The Lying (Down) Life of Teenagers as so much of the novel is about Giovanna deciding when and how to rid herself of the burden of virginity. (Yes, it’s very much – too much – that kind of coming-of-age as well.)
Returning to Vittoria, who does not appear to be ugly on the outside. But she is putrid on the inside. And she rules the neighbourhood with an iron fist. I could not suspend my disbelief to accept that all and sundry – including her dead lover’s wife and children – would allow her such control. It was a risk giving such an unlikeable character so much page space and influence. Now I know that I’m not supposed to dislike a novel because of an unpalatable character, but this one makes Cruella de Ville seem like a humanitarian!
Trying to fathom out the reasons for the family estrangement is as difficult for Giovanna as working out the history of the bracelet that Vittoria purportedly gave her at birth. Does the truth emerge? I think so but most importantly so too do the revelations of deceit.
The question is whether Giovanna herself is to be trusted. I’m inclined to believe her, given the openness regarding her own frequently questionable behaviour and the fact that it is an earnest older self writing in 1st person without a modicum of humour or wit. At first I thought the saga of the bracelet was being played for comedy. But no. There isn’t even a passing tolerant nod to the stupidity of youth. The narrator’s gaze on her younger self is relentless. To what end? Is worse to follow? I wonder, because there’s such an obvious setup for a sequel as Giovanna takes a train out of the city. Imagine me, there, on the platform, frankly relieved to be waving goodbye.
Ann Goldstein recently appeared at the online Edinburgh Book Festival. You can watch the event here.