Recently, my resolution to quit the books which fail to engage was tested again.
I dropped The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante about 40% of the way through. Facing this was hard.
I was so pumped up. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is one of my favorite works of fiction I read in the past decade. Naturally, my expectations for her latest novel were high. I did not even apply my first hundred pages/first third cutoff.
The Lying Life of Adults is well written. The dazzling combination of Ferrante’s prose and Ann Goldstein’s translation is present.
About 40% into the book, reading it felt like an obligation (an obligation to who?) It felt unlike tearing through the later books of the Neapolitan Quartet. Once I noticed that, I could not un-notice it.
When I dropped the book, I felt relief. That meant I had to drop the book to honestly keep my resolution.
Another reason this is hard for me is that, if I had this resolution when I first read My Brilliant Friend (the first book in the Neapolitan Quartet), I would have also dropped it midway. It was the 1-in-50 books really worth pressing through, despite not engaging me in the first third. The quartet did not click with me until the second book, The Story of a New Name.
I enjoyed My Brilliant Friend much more the second time (yes, I’ve read it twice).
Ferrante said she considers the entire quartet to be a single novel which the publisher broke up. In that case, I got engaged in the story around the first-third mark and it would have passed my current cutoff.
Why is The Lying Life of Adults less engaging than the Neapolitan Quartet? I’m not sure. My guess is that The Lying Life of Adults lacks a character who grabs nearly as much attention as Rafaella ‘Lila’ Cerullo, or even on the level of Elena ‘Lenu’ Greco or Nino Sarratore. Love or hate Lila and Nino – and I completely understand if you hate either/both of them – they do not bore. Heck, Nino Sarratore has inspired a hate blog (warning: spoilers and f-bombs). I can’t imagine any character in The Lying Life of Adults inspiring a hate blog.
Walking away from The Lying Life of Adults makes me feel like I’m improving my intellectual integrity as a reader. More importantly, by asking myself why one work engages me and another does not, I learn more than if I uncritically plowed through every book I cracked open.