All Grown Up left me feeling sad and emotionally depleted. The main character, Andrea, is the saddest portrait of a modern woman I’ve ever read. I just feel awful for how emotionally devoid her life is, and I think I’m supposed to finish reading this book feeling like she’s some modern, feminist icon, refusing to partake in life as society expects her too. But instead we have someone with literally no joy in any aspect of her life. There may be a few spoilers in the following review, so if you think you might read it, stop here.
I went into this book with expectations given from this description:
An enthralling confession of a woman contending with the outside world’s expectations of who she should be.
Powerfully intelligent and wickedly funny, All Grown Up delves into the psyche of a flawed but mesmerising character. Readers will recognise themselves in Jami Attenberg’s truthful account of what it means to be a 21st century woman, though they might not always want to admit it.
I didn’t get any of that AT ALL. What I read was a terribly sad account of a depressed, robotically unfeeling, self destructive, childish, selfish, awful child-woman. There was barely any humour in in at all. I was hoping for something a bit like Living The Dream, which was genuinely hilarious, but it was nothing at all like that.
Andrea is 40 years old. She hasn’t got children and she appears to have never had anything other than fleeting relationships. She hates her mundane job. She’s a borderline alcoholic and frequent drug user (more so in her earlier years). She’s shockingly selfish when it comes to her family and is probably depressed. Andrea has hardly any sympathetic qualities. We find out that she had a difficult upbringing. Her mum had a hard time after her dad died (drug overdose) and this resulted in Andrea being put in some very unsafe situations with regards to abusive men being present in the family home in Andrea’s later teenage years. She also had a bad experience at grad school when her mentor told her she was rubbish at art.
Andrea’s family are die-hard New Yorkers. Her brother has a terminally ill child when Andrea is around 35 and he moves to New Hampshire with his family and eventually their mother moves too, to help them with the baby. We experience all of this through different chapters covering various important stages of Andrea’s life.
The overarching theme is of a woman who deliberately emotionally cuts herself off from everyone around her. She has a pathological hatred of babies. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to have children, or even to not really want to hold and coo over other peoples babies (I don’t really do this and I have children of my own!) but Andrea hates them. She tells one of her lovers he isn’t to talk about his child with her. She drops friends as soon as they have a baby. Actually, she seems unable to handle the fact that life may change for a person who’s just had a baby. She berates friends for disappearing from her life, only to reappear a few years later. She doesn’t consider that maybe a friend needs support or is having a difficult time. She just sees that they don’t want to go boozing with her.
She has a difficult relationship with her mother – expected given the situation Andrea’s late teens. But her reaction when her mum says she’s moving to help out with the terminally ill baby is horrendous. Andrea feels abandoned and lets everybody know about it. She only meets her niece a few times in her five short years. Once is when she drives her mum over to live with them. Here she leaves after one night without telling anyone. Her brother is clearly a broken and struggling man and she offers him no support either. She’s just pissed off at him for taking their mum away from her. Here, she is sharing a room with her mum on her first night at her brother’s house, after she has moved her mum in with them:
“I’ve had enough me to last a lifetime,” my mother says. She’s facing the wall and her voice is dreamy. Then she tells me she loves me, she tells me to go to sleep. “In the morning we’ll have a new day, ” she says. “That’s the best part of going to sleep. Knowing there’s a new day tomorrow.” “That’s the kind of thing you tell a child.” I Say. “I expect more from you.” “Andrea, enough!” she snaps. “You know, you’re doing better than you think you are. You can survive without me.” “I’m not,” I say. “All right, even if you’re not, which I don’t believe is true. just grow up already,” she says. She flips over, and her voice is closer to me. “Handle your shit, Andrea. You’re thirty-nine years old. You can do it.” “I’ll try,” I say. “One more thing,” my mother says. “I see you not holding that baby. You think I don’t notice it, but I do.” I say absolutely nothing. “Tomorrow you hold the baby,” she says. I’m the sick baby, I think. Me. Who will hold me?
The absolute worst thing happens at the end of the book. She still won’t engage with her family or offer them any support with the dying child. Until she’s basically forced to read a book about life with a dying child. She suddenly realises what a selfish human being she is and want to be in all their lives. Her niece dies in her arms. The book ends. You needed a book to tell you life with a dying child is hard?!?
I wouldn’t mind Andrea making any of her life choices if she had done it because she genuinely wanted to make them. If she was happy with her life that would have been amazing, but she’s so clearly utterly miserable. I don’t think a man or a baby would fix this of course, she maybe needs to read some more books as that is the only way she made any connection 😀
I wouldn’t be put off reading anything by Jami Attenberg again, it’s really well written and brave to write such an unlikable character. It just didn’t work for me.
I wonder if anyone else has read All Grown Up? What did you think? Have I got it all wrong?
p.s. I recieved this copy of All Grown Up from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Sorry if this is too honest!