On Nov. 6, 2019, months before the coronavirus swept Italy, customers lined up outside bookstores there waiting for The Lying Life of Adults, the new novel from Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan quartet has become an international phenomenon. Book groups across the country held vigils reading aloud from previous works by their favorite author. Meanwhile, a select group of journalists counted down the hours until they would receive an encrypted PDF of the new 336-page novel, which they were told would take five or six hours to read—giving them enough time to file reviews for the morning editions of their papers.
At the stroke of 12 that night, Ferrante’s first new novel in five years went on sale in Italy. Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, spouses and publishers of Italy’s Edizioni E/O, which publishes Ferrante in Italy, engineered the book’s buildup by embargoing the title until that moment. “We wanted everyone to get the book together: the newspapers, the critics, the bookstores,” Sandro said. “The only ones we didn’t give the book to was Amazon.” (Amazon will, however, get the book for the U.S. launch in September.)
The reviews were good: “Classic Ferrante” (Esquire Italia); “Reassuring, Unsettling, Mesmerizing” (La Stampa). And sales have been solid: to date, The Lying Life of Adults has sold 335,000 copies in Italy.
Europa, the U.S. publisher that the Ferris founded in 2005 to bring English-language translations of Edizioni books to the American and British markets, will publish The Lying Life of Adults in the U.S. and the U.K. on September 1. (The U.S. and U.K. pub date was delayed because of turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.)
In 2012, Europa published the English translation of My Brilliant Friend, the first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which explores the 60-year-long friendship and rivalry of Lena and Lila, two girls from the lower class rione in midcentury Naples.
The Neapolitan quartet has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide and has been published in 48 countries and 35 languages, according to the Ferris. The fervor for the unknown author—Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym—is a story in itself. The novels have spawned all manner of adaptations and offshoots, including a play on a London stage, a tour of Lena and Lila’s favorite haunts in Naples, and an HBO series. Additionally, a film based on an earlier Ferrante novel, 2008’s The Lost Daughter, is in the works; the film will be directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and will star Olivia Colman.
Nonetheless, the new book didn’t come easily. Four years elapsed between the release of the last Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and that of The Lying Life of Adults. Ferrante is “an autonomous writer,” said Sandra, who is her editor and now also a close friend. “We talk every day. She knows what she wants to publish, and she knows how she wants it to be published. To follow the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante knew she wanted a different kind of story, and she wanted the book to stand alone—to not be the first of a second series.”
Though once again Ferrante has written a compelling lead female character and narrator, this time she is an upper-class adolescent from a wealthy left-wing family who lives in the posh heights of Naples—a far cry from Lena and Lila’s neighborhood. The story spans four years of Giovanna’s life, from ages 12 to 16, as she struggles to determine her identity, including whether she is beautiful or ugly, as her father calls her on the first page of the novel.
The initial manuscript Ferrante sent to Sandra was a totally different book. “I loved it,” she said. But Ferrante did not, and thus she withdrew it. The one that followed was The Lying Life of Adults.
Sandra said Ferrante is not difficult to edit. “When it comes to a suggested change, we’ll discuss it. If it’s not clear, she’ll throw it away or rewrite it.”
Ferrante was less malleable when it came to the cover art, according to Sandra. The Italian edition shows a photograph of the hands and forearms of a young woman. The author did not want readers to see Giovanna’s face. If the girl herself didn’t know how she looked, readers shouldn’t either, the author reasoned.
The U.S. cover is a different matter. The designer, Emanuele Ragniso, produced 36 versions of the cover before Eva Ferri, the Ferris’ daughter and publishing director of Europa Editions UK and Edizioni, made the decision to include a partial portrait of Giovanna. “I’m not sure [Ferrante] really liked it,” Sandra said.
At the Edizioni offices in Rome in February, before Italy was locked down in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, it was business as usual. The Ferris were low-key about the effect Ferrante’s titles have had on both the profile and the bottom line of their publishing enterprise. “We recognize how lucky we are, and we are grateful to the author,” Sandro said. “But we are continuing to publish the same kind of books. We’re not looking for the next Ferrante.”
As always, the Ferris are faithful to their long-term mission. “We continue to look for merit,” Sandro said. “We are trying to stay grounded.”
Carrie Tuhy is a writer living in New York City.