“A friend came to my apartment for the first time recently frowning at the futon in the living room. ‘A futon?! You’re not in your 20s anymore!’ Evidently a couch, an actual couch, is an indicator of adulthood – as is marriage and the requisite 2.5 kids.”
With this statement, author Jami Attenberg gets to the crux of her latest novel, All Grown Up.
As mentioned, the cornerstones of adulthood are marriage, children and proper furniture. All of which protagonist Andrea Bern does not possess.
As the novel opens, Andrea is months away from turning 40 – a milestone for those who set themselves up for having it all by a certain age.
In her last months of being 39, Andrea has already decided that she would not have children and marriage is not for her. That much Andrea is certain. However, in other aspects of her life, Andrea is not so certain.
Despite being a talented artist, Andrea gave up creating art as she feels her pieces “does not seem to come together for me. Maybe I have been fooling myself that I am an artist all these years.” (When we meet her, Andrea works as a graphic designer – a role she does not find much satisfaction in; she works just for the money.)
To justify her adult existence, Andrea bounces from job to job, often leaving when she gets bored with the work she is doing or when she embarks on an ill-advised office romance.
Much like Andrea, Attenberg is frank and factual when she describes the lack of stability in her heroine’s life. Andrea’s father died of a drug overdose when she was in her early teens; her widowed mother can barely make ends meet; and her older brother and his wife – who outwardly seems to have it all – have a daughter who is terminally ill.
With such emotional familial baggage, it is no wonder Andrea prefers to be the end of the family line. All the while, Andrea rebels in her own way by being herself, regardless of the unwritten rules set by New York society – and the world in general.
While the storyline has the makings of a chick lit novel, what makes All Grown Up stand out from other novels with similar themes is Andrea and her attitude and Attenberg’s writing style.
Andrea’s less-than-ideal family life is told through short vignettes in the first person, and her thoughts can – and admittedly tends to – tug on the reader’s heartstrings.
However, Andrea – and Attenberg – does not seek or want sympathy. While Andrea can tell her therapist that she is a daughter, a sister, a friend, a designer, she quietly admits to herself that she is also a drinker, a failed artist who gave up on her calling, a somewhat promiscuous individual.
Outwardly, Andrea may be brazen and flip her middle finger to what her mother and society in general expects women of a certain age to have achieved; inwardly she has sussed out that she is on a downward spiral.
To block this little voice inside her head, Andrea turns to drink and sex – a pattern that leads to a spiral of sorts. This internal battle between not caring what everyone else thinks and knowing the aspirations you once had are no more than a footnote in your life is what drives the novel.
Praise must be given to Attenberg for giving her audience a protagonist who is not instantly likeable, flawed and totally human. Andrea may be a whinging drama queen but despite her faults, readers are drawn towards her and her fallibility. At turns poignant and funny, All Grown Up (not at all chick lit) is an easy read, with an undertow that deems being a grown up is a state of mind that is of nobody’s concern but the individual in question. A very good read.
All Grown Up
Author: Jami Attenberg
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, contemporary fiction