“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly,” begins Elena Ferrante’s new novel, her first since the global sensation of the Neapolitan quartet. Twelve-year-old Giovanna, up until then the apple of her father’s eye, overhears him saying that she is— “getting the face” of his estranged sister Vittoria. It is an insult inspired by Flaubert, as we learn in Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (2016). Struck by Emma Bovary’s observation that her daughter Berthe is ugly, Ferrante aspired to “place it somewhere on a page of [her] own”.
The remark sparks in Giovanna an obsession with her appearance and a desperate desire to see her aunt. When her parents, left-wing intellectuals, relent and allow her to visit Vittoria, Giovanna must descend from the upper-middle-class rione alto to “the depths of the depths of Naples”—a stone’s throw from the neighbourhood featured in the quartet. Impervious to her father’s injunction “to put wax in [her] ears like Odysseus”, Giovanna is captivated by her aunt; as their relationship develops, she finds her loyalties torn. Straddling the two worlds, she starts to lie by omission to her parents and “almost inadvertently” invent damning anecdotes about her parents to please Vittoria.
“Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” Giovanna laments…
Read the full article online in the Irish Times