When my kids were little, there was a flood of shows on TV featuring British nannies that helped ineffective parents improve. Remember these shows? The allure was that the families in question were just a little bit more insane then the average family (mine). The parents’ decisions were just a little bit more questionable. The kids’ sleep issues were just a little more pronounced. The tantrums were just a little bit louder. The nannies’ advice was usually straightforward (“Don’t give your kids so much candy!”), but my main takeaway was, “At least my parenting isn’t as bad as that!”
For me, a good novel about a dysfunctional family has the same payoff (“At least my family isn’t as bad as that!”). The reader gets to live a while under the roof of a house where things are familiar but just a little bit crazier than life under her own. However, if the dysfunction goes too far – where events are too painful – the novel can be oppressively sad. At the same time, if the dysfunction doesn’t go far enough – where events are too common – the novel can be dull. I guess I’m saying that there’s a dysfunctional sweet spot, a reading experience that is riveting but that doesn’t break my heart all the way to pieces.
Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald features a solidly dysfunctional family, but it doesn’t quite find the sweet spot. The novel features Mary Rose, who is a successful Canadian author with two beautiful little kids. But she feels that she’s coming unhinged – she’s forgetting things and finding herself inexplicably filled with rage. On top of that, she is feeling some significant pain in her arm, at the site where she had surgery years before.
The story lasts a week, and, slowly, the reader learns that all was not right in Mary Rose’s past. Her parents had several children who died at birth, but these tragedies were rarely talked about. Her mother was sent away for a while, and when she returned she seemed disconnected. Mary Rose wonders if the source of her current unraveling might lie in childhood experiences she can’t clearly recall. The catch is that her mother, who should hold the answers, is in early stages of what seems like dementia. She is forgetting just at the moment that Mary Rose is trying to remember.
MacDonald has an amazing way with words. Individual paragraphs are gorgeous and witty. But this book suffers from too little plot – we watch Mary Rose walk back and forth to the preschool and the park. We watch her buy flowers, twice. We go with her to Starbucks. All of these little events are important (e.g. putting on boots becomes a meaningful thing), but they pull this much of this book into the realm of “too common dysfunction.” The other part – the part that she can’t remember – is more gripping (and also possibly more terrible), but the reader can mostly see what’s coming from the outset.
I have noticed recently that I have been reading bundles of books with similar themes. I was struck by the commonalities between this book and Toni Morrison’s God Help The Child, which I finished last week. Both of these stories concern the replication and endurance of childhood wounds. But Morrison’s novel has the benefit of connecting to larger cultural trauma – racism and its legacy – to give it relevance.
Oprah Winfrey chose MacDonald’s first novel, Fall On Your Knees, for her Book Club in 2002. Here's an interview from back then. Her current book is largely autobiographical, and you can find a current interview with her here.