Trials of keeping up with New York times
All Grown Up
Serpent’s Tail, £12.99
Reviewed by Madeleine Kingsley
JEWISH NEW York surely abounds in single women documenting their sleek and sassy lives on Facebook. Not so Andrea, the storyteller in Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. In the universal marathon to maturity, Andrea is “the one getting left behind” as her peers race effortlessly towards promotion, fall in love with Wall Street money, hyphenate their names and breast-feed sweet-creamsmelling babies in Tribeca lofts.
As for her own dubious accoutrements of adulthood, Andrea has onoff therapy, a sheaf of not-saleableenough drawings (all of the Empire State Building) — an erstwhile drug dealer, some dud lovers, the leather recliner in which her father died of an overdose and a mother who is Not Happy. Andrea is a boozy, cool, heroic loser and you’ll love her, certainly from the moment she sends this text to everyone she knows; “My mother is trying to murder me with her emotions. Please send help.”
If you have read Meet the Middlesteins, in which a food-obsessed matriarch come to the very grief she gives out, then you will already know Attenberg as the ultimate unsparing portrayer of family dysfunction.
I caught myself laughing, and appalled to be so, as Andrea’s disasters unfolded with off-beat, comedic charm. All Grown Up has no chronological plot — its chapters are tell-tale tableaux that duck and weave through time, colouring in the key encounters that have shaped Andrea and conspired to leave her feeling always “the one left behind”.
There was the day she cut school to follow her errant father and found him up to something dodgy with a rackety actor. Her widowed mother could barely put food on the table, so hosted parties to which creepy men came, paid, and molested Andrea’s innocence.
There’s Nina the co-worker in the hot, tight lilac dress who pretends to be Nina’s confidante, but shares superior pillow talk with their boss. There’s the therapist who opines “No, they don’t” when Andrea says of her unsatisfactory love interests: “If you add them all up they equal half a boyfriend.” There’s the end of her friendship with best mate and yoga guru, Indigo, whose new baby transforms her into a distant, blissed-out alien. Andrea thinks scathing thoughts when visiting this infant who, Indigo coos, has the wisdom of ages in his tiny eyes. And yet Andrea finds herself unaccountably in tears.
Or not so unaccountably… for Andrea’s brother and his gorgeous wife Greta who are indeed fully grown up, have a baby daughter who, we know pretty much from the outset, will not long survive. This is the tragedy that Andrea, through all the protest and clamour of her urban distress, resists confronting. Unfathomable grief really does belong to grown-ups. It may break them, but Attenberg leaves you wondering if, in the end, it may also make them.
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance reviewer