A Review of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Adult Onset”
#Throwback (№ 3)
I thought I’d try a little experiment during the summer months and read/review books on my pile of stuff I’ve never gotten around to reading and see if the old adage about books having a long shelf life was true. (I’ll be checking my analytics as I go on to see if this approach is really worth it.) One of those books is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, which I got for Christmas one year. I really loved MacDonald’s debut Fall on Your Knees (which I don’t really remember much of, since I read it maybe 20 years ago), but didn’t care for its follow-up The Way the Crow Flies because it was so bloated — the first 100 pages of a roughly 1,000 page book take place in 15 minutes of a car ride and is nothing but an info dump about the setting and place of the novel, 1960s Southern Ontario. So I suppose I was a little apprehensive about MacDonald’s third novel, Adult Onset, published in 2014 — and that’s why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it.
The book is about a writer of young adult fiction named Mary Rose MacKinnon who is suffering from writer’s block and takes place over a week in her life looking after her two young children while her wife is away directing a play in another Canadian city (the book is set in Toronto), while dealing with a forthcoming visit from her aging parents. Her mother is suffering from a kind of mild dementia. Thus, Adult Onset is a semi-autobiographical novel — a big clue is in the name of the protagonist, which echoes the author’s name — and is about as kitchen sink realistic as you can get. However, there are three novels trying to break out here: the first is the main narrative about Mary Rose’s week. The second is a flashback to Mary Rose’s childhood and her mother’s struggle to conceive children that didn’t die of miscarriage, die in the womb or die after giving birth. The third is scenes from the two young adult novels that Mary Rose has written, that relate in some way to her relationship with her parents.
And that’s one of the problems with Adult Onset, a lack of focus. The YA segments, in particular, don’t add anything to the story, and they don’t seem very “young adult-y” at all. The flashbacks fill in some of the gaps in the storyline, but they’re inconclusive. A big part of the novel is the fact that Mary Rose suffered from bone cysts in her youth, which have returned as phantom pain as a 40-something adult, and they may have been a product of physical abuse, presumably from her depressed mother. The book is never clear on this — whether or not Mary Rose was abused — so it’s unclear as to why so much real estate is taken up by this plot development. The other problem with Adult Onset is that it’s terribly boring. Nothing really exciting happens in Mary Rose’s life except for grousing about her writer’s block and going about the various chores that she needs to do while her partner is away.
However, the biggest problem of the novel is that its protagonist, Mary Rose, is not very likable. She argues with her partner over the phone, she’s a bit self-absorbed when dealing with other people and she treats her kids kind of like garbage, culminating in nearly abusing one of them. Granted, one of her children, the youngest (a two-year-old), is a bit hard to handle. Still, I found myself not really identifying with the character at all and didn’t give two shits about what happened to her. Adult Onset could have been a better book if she got run over by a bus on page 47 or thereabouts. This family is not special or worth spending time with in any way, but that might have to do with the fact that they don’t do anything interesting except take long walks through the neighbourhood en route to completing a chore. (Yawn.)
Are there any good bits about Adult Onset? I suppose it’s well-written from the perspective of what motherhood is really about and the challenges that come with the territory. The thing is, you’ll read this book and never want to have kids. We rarely see the children cooperating with their mother, which leads you to wonder what kind of a parent Mary Rose really is. Beyond that, the novel is a bit of a big sopping wet love letter to the Annex, an upper-middle class region of Toronto populated by bohemian types (who are modestly successful). Reading Adult Onset in 2019 is a bit sad because there has been a lot of big changes to the neighbourhood since the book was published — the most notable being that Honest Ed’s, a dollar store that was kind of gaudy and over-the-top in pushing its sales items, has closed down, taking part of the spirit of the area away from it.
However, Adult Onset is a chore of a book to read. It’s a difficult third novel, and perhaps its author was suffering from a writer’s block when conceiving it, so decided to write a book that was a thinly-veiled autobiography. (Both MacKinnon and MacDonald are derived partially from Lebanese descent, both are lesbians living with a wife, and both had two children — at least when the book was published.) This is a challenging book, precisely because it’s so hyper-realistic and ordinary. I don’t know about you, but I read books to escape from the drudgery of life, not wallow in it. And, what’s worse, loose ends aren’t tied up — we learn that Mary Rose’s parents were not supportive of her when she came out as a lesbian, but somehow, 20 years later, have changed their mind about it. It’s never brought up how that transformation took place. All in all, if you want to read a good Ann-Marie MacDonald book, make a bee-line to Fall on Your Knees. After that, it’s pretty much all downhill from there, culminating in a book so unnoteworthy, even Wikipedia has yet to dedicate a page to it when it details all of MacDonald’s other work. Adult Onset is a bore. I can only hope that if MacDonald has another book in her, it’s better than this. Frankly, I think this is the point where I leave the Ann-Marie MacDonald fandom bus.
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset was published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada in 2014.
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