The following excerpt from Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults spans the first seven chapters of the book. It has been condensed in order to tell a story with a singular focus, removing sections that draw you deeper into the world of the novel. Per the author’s request, there are asterisks throughout the piece to indicate where passages have been removed from the original text.
Listen to the excerpt, narrated by Marisa Tomei:
Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly. The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via San Giacomo dei Capri, in Rione Alto. Everything—the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a frigid February, those words—remained fixed. But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that 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.*
The night my father made that statement he had just learned that I wasn’t doing well in school. It was something new. I had always done well, since first grade, and only in the past two months had started doing badly. But it was very important to my parents that I be successful in school, and at the first poor grades my mother, especially, was alarmed.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to study.”
“I do study.”
“Some things I remember and some I don’t.”
“Study until you remember everything.”
I studied until I was exhausted, but the results continued to be disappointing. That afternoon, in fact, my mother had gone to talk to the teachers and had returned very unhappy. She didn’t scold me, my parents never scolded me. She merely said: the mathematics teacher is the one who is most dissatisfied, but she says that if you want to you can do it. Then my mother went into the kitchen to make dinner, and meanwhile my father came home. All I could hear from my room was that she was giving him a summary of the teachers’ complaints, and I understood that she was bringing up as an excuse the changes of early adolescence. But he interrupted her, and in one of the tones that he never used with me—even giving in to dialect, which was completely banned in our house—let slip what he surely wouldn’t have wanted to come out of his mouth:
“Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”
I’m sure that if he’d known I could hear him he would never have used a tone so far removed from our usual playful ease. They both thought the door of my room was closed, I always closed it, and they didn’t realize that one of them had left it open. So it was that, at the age of twelve, I learned from my father’s voice, muffled by the effort to keep it low, that I was becoming like his sister, a woman in whom—I had heard him say as long as I could remember—ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.
Here someone might object: maybe you’re exaggerating, your father didn’t say, literally, Giovanna is ugly. It’s true, it wasn’t in his nature to utter such brutal words. But I was going through a period of feeling very fragile. I’d begun menstruating almost a year earlier, my breasts were all too visible and embarrassed me, I was afraid I smelled bad and was always washing, I went to bed lethargic and woke up lethargic. My only comfort at that time, my only certainty, was that he absolutely adored me, all of me. So that when he compared me to Aunt Vittoria it was worse than if he’d said: Giovanna used to be pretty, now she’s turned ugly.
In my house the name Vittoria was like the name of a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her. I knew almost nothing about her. I had seen her only a few times, but— and this is the point—all I remembered about those occasions was revulsion and fear. Not the revulsion and fear that she in person could have provoked in me—I had no memory of that. What frightened me was my parents’ revulsion and fear. My father always talked about his sister obscurely, as if she practiced shameful rites that defiled her, defiling those around her. My mother never mentioned her, and in fact when she intervened in her husband’s outbursts tended to silence him, as if she were afraid that Vittoria, wherever she was, could hear them and would immediately come rushing up San Giacomo dei Capri, striding rapidly, although it was a long, steep street, and deliberately dragging behind her all the illnesses from the hospitals in our neighborhood; that she would fly into our apartment, on the sixth floor, smash the furniture, and, emitting drunken black flashes from her eyes, hit my mother if she so much as tried to protest.
Of course I intuited that behind that tension there must be a story of wrongs done and suffered, but I knew little, at the time, of family affairs, and above all I didn’t consider that terrible aunt a member of the family. She was a childhood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls. Was it possible, then, that without any warning I should discover that I was getting her face?*
I waited for my mother to speak, but her reaction didn’t console me. Although she hated all her husband’s relatives and detested her sister-in-law the way you detest a lizard that runs up your bare leg, she didn’t respond by yelling at him: you’re crazy, my daughter and your sister have nothing in common. She merely offered a weak, laconic: what are you talking about, of course she isn’t. And I, there in my room, hurried to close the door so as not to hear anything else. Then I wept in silence and stopped only when my father came to announce—this time in his nice voice—that dinner was ready.
I joined them in the kitchen with dry eyes, and had to endure, looking at my plate, a series of suggestions for improving my grades. Afterward I went back to pretending to study, while they settled in front of the television. My suffering wouldn’t end or even diminish. Why had my father made that statement? Why had my mother not forcefully contradicted it? Was their displeasure due to my bad grades or was it an anxiety that was separate from school, that had existed for years? And him, especially him, had he spoken those cruel words because of a momentary irritation I had caused him, or, with his sharp gaze—the gaze of someone who knows and sees everything— had he long ago discerned the features of my ruined future, of an advancing evil that upset him and that he himself didn’t know how to respond to? I was in despair all night. In the morning I was convinced that, if I wanted to save myself, I had to see what Aunt Vittoria’s face was really like.* So I thought that, at least for a start, I’d have to find a picture of her.
I took advantage of an afternoon when they were both out and went to rummage in a dresser in their bedroom where my mother kept the albums containing, in an orderly arrangement, the photographs of herself, my father, and me. I knew those albums by heart. I had often leafed through them: they mostly documented my parents’ relationship and my almost thirteen years of life. And so I knew that, mysteriously, there were a lot of pictures of my mother’s relatives, very few of my father’s, and, among those few, not a single one of Aunt Vittoria. Still, I remembered that somewhere in that dresser was an old metal box that held random images of my parents before they met. Since I’d hardly ever looked at them, and always with my mother, I hoped to find in there some pictures of my aunt.
I found the box in the bottom of the wardrobe, but first I decided to re-examine conscientiously the albums that showed the two of them as fiancés, the two of them as bride and groom frowning at the center of a small wedding party, the two of them as an always happy couple, and, finally, me, their daughter, photographed an excessive number of times, from birth to now. I lingered in particular on the wedding pictures. My father was wearing a visibly rumpled dark suit and was scowling in every image; my mother, beside him, not in a wedding dress but in a cream-colored suit, with a veil the same shade, had a vaguely excited expression. I already knew that among the thirty or so guests were some friends from the Vomero they still saw and my mother’s relatives, the good grandparents from Museo. But still I looked and looked again, hoping for a figure even in the background that would lead me somehow or other to a woman I had no memory of. Nothing. So I moved on to the box and after many attempts managed to get it open.
I emptied the contents onto the bed: all the pictures were black and white. The ones of my parents’ separate teenage years were in no order: my mother, smiling, with her classmates, with her friends, at the beach, on the street, pretty and well dressed, was mixed in with my father, preoccupied, always by himself, never on vacation, pants bunching at the knees, jackets whose sleeves were too short. The pictures of childhood and early adolescence had instead been put in order in two envelopes, the ones from my mother’s family and those from my father’s. My aunt—I told myself—must inevitably be among the latter, and I went on to look at them one by one. There weren’t more than about twenty, and it struck me immediately that in three or four of those images my father, who in the others appeared as a child, a boy, with his parents, or with relatives I’d never met, could be seen, surprisingly, next to a black rectangle drawn with a felt-tipped pen. I immediately understood that that very precise rectangle was a job that he had done diligently and secretly. I imagined him as, using a ruler that he had on his desk, he enclosed a portion of the photo in that geometric shape and then carefully went over it with the marker, attentive not to go outside the fixed margins. I had no doubts about that painstaking work: the rectangles were deletions and under that black was Aunt Vittoria.
For quite a while I sat there not knowing what to do. Finally, I made up my mind, went to the kitchen and found a knife, and delicately scraped at a tiny section of the part of the photograph that my father had covered. I soon realized that only the white of the paper appeared. I felt anxious and stopped. I knew that I was going against my father’s will, and any action that might further erode his affection frightened me. The anxiety increased when at the back of the envelope I found the only picture in which he wasn’t a child or a teenager but a young man, smiling, as he rarely was in the photos taken before he met my mother. He was in profile, his gaze was happy, his teeth were even and very white. But the smile, the happiness weren’t directed toward anyone. Next to him were two of those precise rectangles, two coffins in which, at a time surely different from the cordial moment of the photo, he had enclosed the bodies of his sister and someone else.
I focused on that image for a long time. My father was on a street and was wearing a checkered shirt with short sleeves; it must have been summer. Behind him was the entrance to a shop, all you could see of the sign was –RIA; there was a display window, but you couldn’t tell what it displayed. Next to the dark patch appeared a bright white lamppost with well-defined outlines. And then there were the shadows, long shadows, one of them cast by an evidently female body. Although my father had assiduously eliminated the people next to him, he had left their trace on the sidewalk.
Again I began to scrape off the ink of the rectangle, very gently, but I stopped as soon as I realized that here, too, only the white appeared. I waited a moment or two and then started again. I worked lightly, hearing my breathing in the silence of the house. I stopped for good only when all I managed to get out of the area where once Vittoria’s head must have been was a spot, and you couldn’t tell if it was the residue of the pen or a trace of her lips.
I put everything back in order and tried to repress the threat that I looked like the sister my father had obliterated.* I tried to find out, after a while, if Angela and Ida, my trusted friends, were aware of any deterioration, and if Angela, in particular, who was the same age as me (Ida was two years younger), was also changing for the worse. I needed a gaze that would evaluate me, and it seemed to me that I could count on them. We had been brought up in the same way by parents who had been friends for decades and had the same views. All three of us, to be clear, had not been baptized, all three didn’t know any prayers, all three had been precociously informed about the functioning of our bodies (illustrated books, educational videos with animated cartoons), all three knew that we should be proud of being born female, all three had gone to first grade not at six but at five, all three always behaved in a responsible manner, all three had in our heads a dense network of advice useful for avoiding the traps of Naples and the world, all three could turn to our parents at any time to satisfy our curiosities, all three read a lot, and, finally, all three had a sensible disdain for consumer goods and the tastes of our contemporaries, even though, encouraged by our teachers, we were well informed about music, film, television programs, singers, and actors, and in secret wanted to become famous actresses with fabulous boyfriends with whom we shared long kisses and genital contact.*
So, considering them reliable witnesses, I questioned them cautiously a couple of times. But they didn’t say anything unpleasant: in fact, they seemed to appreciate me quite a bit, and for my part I thought they seemed to keep getting prettier. They were well proportioned, so carefully modeled that just the sight of them made me feel a need for their warmth, and I hugged and kissed them as if I wanted to fuse them to myself. But one night when I was feeling down they happened to come for dinner at San Giacomo dei Capri with their parents, and things got complicated. I wasn’t in a good mood. I felt especially out of place, gangling, lanky, pale, coarse in every word and gesture, and therefore ready to pick up allusions to my deterioration even when there weren’t any.
For example Ida asked, pointing to my shoes:
“Are they new?”
“No, I’ve had them forever.”
“I don’t remember them.”
“What’s wrong with them.”
“If you noticed them now, it means that now something’s wrong.”
“Are my legs too thin?”
We went on like that for a while, they reassuring me, I digging into their reassurances to find out if they were serious or hiding behind good manners the ugly impression I’d made. My mother intervened in her weary tone, saying: Giovanna, that’s enough, you don’t have skinny legs. I was ashamed and shut up immediately, while Costanza, Angela and Ida’s mother, emphasized, you have lovely ankles, and Mariano, their father, exclaimed, laughing: excellent thighs, they’d be delicious roasted with potatoes. He didn’t stop there, but kept teasing me, joking constantly—he was that person who thinks he can bring good cheer to a funeral.
“What’s wrong with this girl tonight?”
I shook my head to indicate that nothing was wrong, and tried to smile but couldn’t; his way of being funny made me nervous.
“Such nice hair, what is it, a sorghum broom?”
Again I shook my head no, and this time I couldn’t hide my annoyance, he was treating me as if I were a child of six.
“It’s a compliment, sweetheart: sorghum is a plump plant, part green, part red, and part black.”
I responded darkly: “I’m not plump, or green, or red, or black.”
He stared at me in bewilderment, smiled, spoke to his daughters.
“Why is Giovanna so grim tonight?”
“I’m not grim.”
“Grim isn’t an insult, it’s the manifestation of a state of mind. You know what it means?”
I was silent. He again turned to his daughters, pretending to be despondent. “She doesn’t know. Ida, you tell her.” Ida said unwillingly: “That you have a scowl on your face. He says it to me, too.”*
The adults started a tedious conversation about some friends or other who were planning to move to Rome, we suffered our boredom in silence, hoping that dinner would be over quickly.* As soon as we finished dessert, we left our parents to their conversation and shut ourselves in my room. There I asked Ida, without turning around:
“Do I have a scowl on my face? Do you think I’m getting ugly?”
They looked at each other, they answered almost simultaneously:
“Not at all.”
“Tell the truth.”
I realized that they were hesitant, Angela decided to speak:
“A little, but not physically.”
“Physically you’re pretty,” Ida emphasized, “only you look a little bit ugly because you’re anxious.”
Angela said, kissing me:
“It happens to me, too. When I’m anxious I turn ugly, but then it goes away.”
That connection between anxiety and ugliness unexpectedly consoled me. You can turn ugly because of worries—Angela and Ida had said—and if the worries go away you can be pretty again. I wanted to believe that, and I made an effort to have untroubled days. But I couldn’t force myself to be calm, my mind would suddenly blur, and that obsession began again. I felt an increasing hostility toward everyone that was difficult to repress with false good humor. And I soon concluded that my worries were not at all transient, maybe they weren’t even worries but bad feelings that were spreading through my veins.
Not that Angela and Ida had lied to me about that, they weren’t capable of it: we had been brought up never to tell lies. With that connection between ugliness and anxieties, they had probably been talking about themselves, and their experience, using the words that Mariano—our heads contained a lot of concepts we heard from our parents—had used, in some circumstance or other, to comfort them. But Angela and Ida weren’t me. Angela and Ida didn’t have in their family an Aunt Vittoria whose face their father—their father—had said they were starting to take on. Suddenly one morning at school I felt that I would never go back to being the way my parents wanted me, that cruel Mariano would notice it, and my friends would move on to more suitable friendships, and I would be left alone.
I was depressed, and in the following days the bad feelings regained strength; the only thing that gave me a little relief was to stroke myself continuously between my legs, numbing myself with pleasure. But how humiliating it was to forget myself like that, by myself; afterward I was even more unhappy, sometimes disgusted. I had a very pleasant memory of a game I played with Angela, on the couch at my house, when, in front of the television, we would lie facing each other, entwine our legs, and silently, without negotiations, without rules, settle a doll between the crotch of my underpants and the crotch of hers, so that we rubbed each other, writhing comfortably, pressing the doll—which seemed alive and happy—hard between us. That was another time, the pleasure didn’t seem like a nice game anymore. Now I was all sweaty, I felt deformed. And so day after day I was repossessed by the desire to examine my face, and went back even more relentlessly to spending time in front of the mirror.
This led to a surprising development: as I looked at what appeared to me defective, I started to want to fix it. I studied my features and, pulling on my face, thought: look, if I just had a nose like so, eyes like so, ears like so, I’d be perfect. My features were slight flaws that made me sad, touched me. Poor you, I thought, how unlucky you’ve been. And I had a sudden enthusiasm for my own image, so that once I went as far as to kiss myself on the mouth just as I was thinking, forlornly, that no one would ever kiss me. So I began to react. I moved slowly from the stupor in which I spent the days studying myself to the need to fix myself up, as if I were a piece of good-quality material damaged by a clumsy worker. I was I—whatever I I was— and had to concern myself with that face, that body, those thoughts.
One Sunday morning I tried to improve myself with my mother’s makeup. But when she came into my room she said, laughing: you look like a Carnival mask, you have to do better. I didn’t protest, I didn’t defend myself, I asked her as submissively as I could:
“Will you teach me to put on makeup the way you do it?”
“Every face has its own makeup.”
“I want to be like you.”
She was glad to do it, complimented me, and then made me up very carefully. We spent some really lovely hours, joking, laughing with each other. Usually she was quiet, self-possessed, but with me—only with me—ready to become a child again.
Eventually my father appeared, with his newspapers; he was happy to find us playing like that.
“How pretty the two of you are,” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Absolutely, I’ve never seen such gorgeous women.”
And he shut himself in his room; on Sunday he read the papers and then studied. But as soon as my mother and I were alone she asked me, as if that space of a few minutes had been a signal, in a voice that was always a little weary but seemed to know neither irritation nor fear:
“Why did you go looking in the box of pictures?”
Silence. She had noticed, then, that I had been rummaging through her things. She realized that I had tried to scrape off the black of the marker. How long ago? I couldn’t keep from crying, even though I fought back the tears with all my strength. Mamma, I said between my sobs, I wanted, I believed, I thought—but I was unable to say a thing about what I wanted, believed, thought. I gasped, sobbing, but she couldn’t soothe me, and as soon as she said something with a smile of sympathy—there’s no need to cry, you just have to ask me, or Papa, and anyway you can look at the photos when you like, why are you crying, calm down—I sobbed even harder. Finally, she took my hands, and it was she herself who said gently:
“What were you looking for? A picture of Aunt Vittoria?”
*Per the author’s request, an asterisk indicates where a passage has been removed from the original text.
Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, narrated by Marisa Tomei.
Copyright © 2020 by Penguin Random House Audio. Published by arrangement with Penguin Audio, an imprint of Penguin Random House Audio, a division of Penguin Random House LLC