Reading All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg could have been a painful process, the equivalent of having your teeth removed via your nostrils. The story of a woman in her late thirties, childless, unmarried and living in New York screams neuroses, therapist and the sort of wacky misadventures that would embarrass Candance Bushnell. And yet while All Grown Up does feature neuroses, therapists and the odd wacky misadventure it’s written with such honesty and compassion that spending time with our protagonist Andrea Bern in anything but a painful, cringe-worthy chore.
The secret to the novel is that it’s short – because who doesn’t love a petite book – and the narrative is split into a series of episodes that jump forward and backward through Andrea’s life. As the novel progresses, as each story is told, Andrea is pieced together, warts and all, as a wonderfully realised woman who has been through the ups and downs of living a single life. There’s the early years where Andrea believed she would be an artist, there are the middle years where she finds herself in a job she doesn’t particularly like, friends who don’t always seem to be on her wavelength and men with their wide variety of sexual hang-ups and fetishes and there’s the later years where Andrea is coming to terms with her upbringing, her relationship with her mother and brother, her acceptance of what it is to be single when the rest of the world expects marriage and children. Attenberg’s magnificent prose captures each of these stages – the hope, the love, the sadness, the neuroses, the maturity – with great deft and skill.
It’s a novel that can be horribly awkward and laugh out loud funny, such as the scene where Andrea flirts with an older man at a wedding only to have him reject her by talking sadly about his dead wife and then reproach Andrea for desiring to shag someone she’d only just met. There’s also a sharpness to the humour that’s provocative but also authentic in its delivery:
One more drink and we’re sharing our rape stories. Nearly every woman I know has one. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of these stories I could buy an enormous, plush pillow with which to smother my tear-stained face. Near rape, date rape, rape rape, it’s all the same, I think. Close enough is rape. Once I had a friend tell me this breathless, elaborate story about fighting off a drunk man at a party. He tears her dress, scratches her skin, throttles her throat, and it ends with her punching him in the eye, but, she points out repeatedly, he never actually fucks her. “Thank god nothing happened,” she said to me. I stared at her, and then slowly responded. “Yes,” I said. “Thank god for that.
While you can’t deny the book’s sometimes cynical tone, All Grown Up is not as raw or savage as it could have been. Instead there’s a warmth to the novel that emerges when Andrea is dealing with her mother and brother – especially later in the book – but is also present when she is enjoying time with her friends, such as this moment when her mate Indigo hands over baby Effy:
“Here,” [Indigo] says. “Hold Effy. He’s the best picker-upper I know.” I would rather have a glass of wine. But I hold Effy. And he is all the things you want a baby to be. He smells like sweet cream and his hair is petal-soft. All right, show me what you got, kid, I think; let’s see what you know. Indigo coos in the background, the fan shuddering behind her. I look into his eyes. She promised me wisdom. I do not see the wisdom of the ages. But, for a moment, in the tenderness of this baby’s existence, in his blank and gentle ease, I see the relief. You don’t know anything yet, I think. You don’t know a goddamn thing. You lucky baby.”
The poignancy of the scene, articulating a truism that age and experience often brings grief and hardship, but written with a bittersweet beauty that’s understated and powerful, is what makes All Grown Up such an unexpected delight to read.