If you were expecting Ann-Marie MacDonald’s third novel Adult Onset (published in 2014) to be similar in scope and drama to her first two sweeping, epic historical novels — including the massively popular Oprah Book Club pick Fall on Your Knees (my review here) — you might be disappointed, at least initially. I think reading this novel with those expectations, however, would do a disservice to MacDonald, who is after all attempting to write a different kind of book. Moreover, I think if you scratch beneath the surface of this week-in-the-life-of-a-stay-at-home-lesbian mom, you’ll find that despite its differences Adult Onset shares a lot with MacDonald’s previous novels.
I, for one, loved this novel. I thought it was fascinating and riveting. I listened to the audiobook, and there were many times when I could barely bring myself to take out my headphones and pause the story. Which is probably not something you’d predict about this type of book set and taking place over the course in a regular week in the life of a married middle class lesbian mom. But there’s also something to be said about the urgency and immediacy of a piece of fiction set in such a short time frame. Especially for the context of this book, in which the weight of motherhood and domesticity are claustrophobically suffocating and swallowing the main character, the pressing atmosphere of the condensed time felt very appropriate.
The lesbian mom in question here is Mary Rose, aka MR, aka Mister. (I love how the completely different nickname comes from this unusual place, and how it represents MR trying to move away from the heightened femininity of her given name to what she calls “a calculated androgyny”). I said the book takes place during a week in her life, which is in the Toronto neighbourhood The Annex. This is true, but it also skips back a bit occasionally to the child- and young adulthood of MR, sometimes inside her own head and memories, and sometimes reaching outside what she could possibly know and remember about her own young life. There are also excerpts from MR’s autobiographical YA series.
Adult Onset is a psychologically rich and complex novel. Barely suppressed underneath the mundane details of MR’s days caring for her toddler Maggie and her Kindergartner Matthew — without her wife Hilary, who is away for work — is a surging sea. This sea is made up of so many things: the myriad stresses of motherhood; struggling to keep up with domestic tasks; MR’s longstanding problem with anger; maintaining a relationship with her mother, who appears to be in the early stages of dementia; supporting her brother who is going through a break-up and dealing with anxiety; remembered trauma of childhood physical illness and familial homophobia; the challenges of sustaining her relationship with Hilary long-distance; and the pressure for MR to write the third book in her immensely popular YA series. It’s A LOT.
The result is an often painfully real book, at times not unlike the last book I reviewed, Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Weekend. Both novels also have the effect of making you feel less alone amidst all the shit of life you are wading through. But one key difference is that MacDonald’s book has a lot of humour in it, albeit often dark humour (my personal favourite kind). It had me laughing about the same amount as it had me cringing. One of my favourite lines from the book that had me laughing out loud was “Mary Rose having approached heterosexuality rather like math: she worked at it until she achieved a C then felt justified in dropping it.”
As I said earlier, I listened to the audiobook version of Adult Onset. I would highly recommend experiencing the book this way, even if you don’t normally do audiobooks! Ann-Marie MacDonald herself narrates it, and it is incredible. Often author-narrated audiobooks aren’t very good, because even though an author has written the book, it doesn’t mean they’re good at performing it. An audiobook is nothing less than a performance by a voice actor, after all. But MacDonald is also a trained and accomplished actress, in addition to a gifted author. She is absolutely fabulous narrating this story. She has a wonderful expressive voice, really embodying MR’s state of mind.
Her narration added a lot of value for me. There were certain passages I think I might have interpreted differently or found less interesting had I read the print book. One sentence in particular stands out in my memory. MR is falling into a sleep-deprived angry spiral about her relationship with Hilary, inside her own head, and she somehow gets onto the topic of how Hilary identifies, queer wise. She thinks, “Hilary, of course, refused to identify specifically as anything, which was just so typical of a bisexual.” (This is a paraphrase, as I didn’t write down the exact sentence–it was that memorable that I still remember it now, weeks after finishing the book).
MR’s voice is so infused with, well, her crazed mental state. The pitch of MacDonald’s voice goes higher and higher and the words are strung together closer and closer as the sentence nears its end until her voice is shrill. It sounded just like the kind of silly, petty thing you might think about your partner while mad at them for, oh, say, being away from home and leaving you alone to parent your two children under five. Acted out in MacDonald’s voice, I found this line very funny. In print, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been uneasy about this jab at bisexuals.
MacDonald also did great unique voices and accents for different characters: the rural Cape Breton twang of MR’s elderly parents was especially great. I will also confess now I’ve always had kind of a crush on Ann-Marie MacDonald (even though she’s old enough to be my mom) and something about the way she did MR’s brother’s voice was so sexy to me I couldn’t handle it.