It might be pitched as light and frothy, a la Sex and the City, but Jami Attenberg’s third novel, All Grown Up, tackles big issues, goes to some dark places and doesn’t provide the New-York-fairy-tale ending that you might expect.
Andrea Bern is struggling with her identity.
For most people, moving to New York City is a gesture of ambition. But for you, it signifies failure, because you grew up there, so it just means you’re moving back home after you couldn’t make it in the world. Spiritually, it’s a reverse commute.
People ‘expect’ Andrea to be married; to want a baby; to have regrets about not pursuing a career in art. But she resists, a 39-year-old equivalent of a toddler lying on the floor of a supermarket and ‘going heavy’.
Andrea could be perceived as refreshingly headstrong, carving her own path regardless of what others think, but it’s a fine line between that and self-obsessed, immature and someone lacking emotional intelligence. For the most part, I was on Andrea’s side – her casual flings, dire dinner dates and excruciating interactions with babies, felt honest and real. However, there were a couple of scenes where she was the exact opposite of what the title of the book suggests and my faith wavered (in Andrea, not Attenberg).
Through Andrea’s acerbic outlook, Attenberg covers issues that all women deal with regardless of their relationship status – career, sex, safety and reproductive rights. She revisits these issues at different stages of Andrea’s life and it gives the story texture –
One more drink and we’re sharing our rape stories. Nearly every woman I know has one. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of these stories I could buy an enormous, plush pillow with which to smother my tearstained face. Near rape, date rape, rape rape, it’s all the same I think. Close enough is rape.
Everyone else is interested in their devices, looking up at her only on occasion. In my day, men would have given her all the male gaze available. I can’t decide if this is progress or an insult.
The story is structured as a series of partially overlapping vignettes, where particular incidents are re-told. Secondary characters play an important part in the re-telling of key scenes – after all, we’re partially defined by the role we play around others. We also shape our personal narrative over time (you know how stories get better every time they’re told?) and as the story progresses, the overlapping elements morph and the emphasis changes.
I enjoy Attenberg’s wry sense of humour – it saves the story from bitterness.
I go to a children’s store in my neighbourhood, pink, chirpy, cheerful, and buy the baby a book, The Giving Tree, a dire story about a selfish child sucking the life out of an enabling tree.
And there are some wonderful, evocative phrases – ‘…a ponytail the color of rotting lemons‘ and ‘I see yoga pants and heartbreak…’ .
There are similarities between All Grown Up and Attenberg’s debut, The Middlesteins – for example, both have characters who you love one moment and detest the next. Most importantly, both are stories about families that don’t play out the way you might expect.
You throw a baby shower, at which you drink too many mimosas and cry in the bathroom, but you are pretty sure no one notices.
Try these grapefruit mimosas.