Reading Adult Onset feels like watching someone else watch a movie inside a glass box: I can see them enjoying the movie but can’t quite join in. I think I’ve come to terms with the fact I didn’t like this book, but I’m still trying to figure out if it’s well written or not. That is, I’m pretty certain most of what I didn’t like is on me, not on the book—but maybe a little of it is the book’s doing. Ann-Marie MacDonald is a versatile, clever author, and I admire what she attempts with this book. But it just doesn’t quite work for me.
Ostensibly a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, aka “Mister”, liberal use of flashbacks and interstitial pseudo-narratives allows MacDonald to delve deeper into Mary Rose’s past. We get to see Mary Rose’s struggles with the quotidian tasks of taking care of a toddler and small child while her partner is out west directing a play. Meanwhile, Mary Rose ruminates on her mother’s many miscarriages and the impact this might have had on Mary Rose’s childhood and upbringing. Phantom pain in her arm from childhood bone cysts causes worries, which combine with the stress of childrearing to fray Mary Rose’s temper and set her off in front of her toddler multiple times. Adult Onset’s title, then, is meant to imply the recapitulation of crisis, emotional as well as physical, as Mary Rose worries that she might be following down the path of her own mother.
I had a hard time gaining traction when it comes to sympathizing with Mary Rose. I understand, even if I don’t know, that raising children can be hard, especially when your partner isn’t always around to help. I get that Mary Rose is exhausted and stressed and occasionally overwhelmed with all the different asks on her time. But she seemed determined to take the difficult path and to refuse the help of people around her. Conversations with Hilary that should have been sweet and routine quickly became battles in which Mary Rose validates her decision to be a stay-at-home mumma by asserting her fatigue. This portrayal and the frustration it causes for some readers are probably intentional on MacDonald’s part, and maybe I would have appreciated it more if I had found other things to enjoy about the book.
Alas, all I can say is that Adult Onset bummed me out, and not in a good or cathartic way. I tip-toed through the chapters with a sense of dread. MacDonald’s writing just seems to highlight the negatives here: Dolly’s encroaching senility and its parallels in Mary Rose’s forgetfulness; her parents’ dual homophobia when she first comes out; Mary Rose’s chronic inability to engage with the other mothers because of the age gap; the stuff with Daisy and the mail delivery; and, of course, Mary Rose’s actions verging on child abuse. This is third person stream of consciousness narration, and it just seems to jump from one negative fixation to another. This book probably needs a big ol’ trigger warning slapped on it.
As Mary Rose tries to tread the water of her life and ends up flailing, I’m just left wondering what I’m supposed to take away from it all. Being a child is hard? Growing up is hard? Mothering is hard? Loving is hard? We get it: life is hard. For all that MacDonald puts Mary Rose and her friends and family under a microscope for our examination, we get only those scenes and little else. This is a snapshot of a life, presented for our consideration, with little in the way of editorializing or endings. There isn’t so much a climax as a kaleidoscope of events affixed to a merry-go-round tour of Toronto. I just kept waiting for something to happen, but instead we get more plodding through day after day. It isn’t quite postmodern but it comes close.
This book strikes me as dithering between two paths like an uncollapsed wavefunction. It could seriously tackle issues of childhood abuse, domestic abuse, parenting, and relationships. Or it could take a more humorous tack, smile and wave at the bad while luxuriating in the essential goodness of family and community. Unfortunately, Adult Onset doesn’t ever seem to make up its mind about what sort of book it should be. It brings up serious issues, then skirts their edges and draws back, non-confrontational-like. It uses humour for highlights and shadows, but it also seems to want to be taken seriously.
The thing is that all of this seems intentional. MacDonald borrows a lot from her own life, from Mary Rose’s heritage and birthplace to her wife sharing an occupation as a theatre director with MacDonald’s wife. I don’t know (or care, really) the extent to which Mary Rose’s childhood and experiences parallel MacDonald’s. Regardless, the structure and style I’ve been criticizing are not accidental flaws. MacDonald is too careful and precise a writer for that. She has clearly tried something very different as a novel here, and it just didn’t work for me. Although I think there are some for whom this novel might work, I’m not chalking up my indifference solely to my own personality. Strive though she might to present an intriguing snapshot into this character’s life, MacDonald isn’t completely successful with this story. Adult Onset is an interesting yet flawed experiment, and those flaws chafed for me.
Fall On Your Knees is one of the few books that has a reasonable claim to being my “favourite book of all time” (such a nonsense idea that you could only have one favourite book). It is about as sublime and amazing as literature can get. I think I read The Way the Crow Flies when I was a teenager, but I don’t remember it at all, so I guess it wasn’t as impressive. I admit to some trepidation starting Adult Onset, wondering what would happen if I didn’t like it. Well, I didn’t like it. The world hasn’t ended. I’m OK with the fact that I absolutely love one of MacDonald’s novels and am lukewarm on another. It’s unfortunate, in the way that not liking a book by a talented author always is, but I’m going to recover. I mean, if you want to send me cards and chocolate (or more books), please feel free.