The Next Chapter

Randy Boyagoda examines the shared literary themes in the books of Elena Ferrante and Margaret Laurence

The author, academic and columnist compares the novels The Lying Life of Adults by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante and The Stone Angel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence.
Randy Boyagoda is an author, academic and columnist. (CBC)

This segment originally aired on Nov. 14, 2020.

Randy Boyagoda is a literary critic, English professor, novelist and The Next Chapter columnist.

He recently read The Lying Life of Adults by pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, about family secrets, lies, freedom and independence. 

He spoke to Shelagh Rogers about that novel and how the similar themes can be found in the Canadian literary classic The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist. (Europa Editions)

"It's a novel by Elena Ferrante that immediately grabs you. It's told from the perspective of Giovanna, who is a 13- or 14-year-old teenager. She overhears one day her father tells her mother that she's ugly and that she's ugly because she looks like her aunt. This aunt is this mysterious, unknown figure in the family's life, because her father and her father's sister, this Aunt Vittoria, are estranged from each other. 

"The novel begins with this sudden arresting moment of self-consciousness. What does it mean that my dad thinks I'm ugly? And what does it mean that this ugliness has something to do with this aunt who I've never really met? The novel begins with that and it goes into a quest to figure out who this aunt really is. You come to realize very quickly that the aunt is actually strikingly beautiful, but is coarse and aggressive and defiant, unlike the very prim and proper intellectual brother, meaning the narrator's father. 

It's another novel by Elena Ferrante that immediately grabs you.

"You start to realize there's this deep divide within this family. The aunt, who is a very difficult person, is also the most honest character in the novel. She's honest about her failings, honest about her commitments and the narrator's caught between these two. The novel explores all of that, over the course of about a year or two in this young woman's life." 

Best-selling Italian author Elena Ferrante's work is adored by millions around the world. The Current speaks to Ann Goldstein, the woman tasked with translating the words into English and tells us why the mysterious storyteller revels in her anonymity. 23:38

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence is the winner of two Governor General's Awards and the author of The Stone Angel. (McClelland & Stewart)

"I didn't read Margaret Laurence when it was assigned to me in high school. I read everything that was required of me in high school except one thing, and that's why it stands out.

"I couldn't do it because it was about an angry 90-year-old lady living on the Prairies. As a suburban 1990s kid, I couldn't handle it. I rejected it on premise. My inability to understand what made Margaret Laurence's novel so good speaks to my limitations back then. 

The big link between both books is that sense of being both scared of and wanting to hear more from their characters.

"When I finally read it, I thought, 'Wow, what a wicked, funny and uncompromising account of someone's life.' I was overwhelmed by the sharpness and, frankly, the defiant bravery of what Margaret Laurence did with Hagar Shipley when she published The Stone Angel in 1964.

"The big link between both books is that sense of being both scared of and wanting to hear more from their characters. There is this weird tension you have between a fatalism and a driving forward to keep on living, keep on telling, keep on making sense of things in life."

Canadians mourn the loss of Margaret Laurence. Across Canada, distinguished authors such as Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and Alice Munro pay tribute to their friend and peer. 5:51

Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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