Friday, January 9, 2015

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald (Book Review)

Ann-Marie MacDonald wrote one of my favourite novels ever - Fall On Your Knees, a grand, enthralling story that sweeps from Cape Breton Island through to Harlem in New York’s Jazz Age. It is the page-turner of all page-turners. And, yes, it was an Oprah's Book Club selection. Quite a coup for a Canadian author.

I also very much enjoyed her (quite different) second novel The Way the Crow Flies. So I was beyond excited to learn that MacDonald had a third novel out. Adult Onset is the story of Mary Rose MacKinnon, a successful, forty-something author who is taking a break from her writing career to raise her young children, while her female partner - a theatre director - continues to advance her career.

From what I gather, I am but one among many MacDonald fans who were looking forward to reading this new book. Our hopes and expectations were high because of the greatness of the previous novels - an enviable (but pressure-filled) position to be in, I would think.

The book follows Mary Rose, also known as "MR" and "Mister," over the course of just one seemingly ordinary week, while her partner is out of town. At first, I must admit, I was a smidge turned off by the initial pages detailing Mister's attempts to navigate Facebook and compose emails while caring for her two-year-old daughter. It just felt too real, too ordinary, too much like my own daily struggles now and in the past. I guess I read to escape the ordinary - the sometimes tedious details of caring for a home and children every day.

But I was soon sucked into this tale of a mother who struggles with raising children while worrying about her elderly parents and reflecting on the emotional damage they had inflicted on her. As her frustration with her daily challenges grows, Mister experiences symptoms of a childhood illness and gradually comes to remember more about her own mother's treatment of her as a child and how it may inform her treatment of her children. The sinister undertones of her memories make a tantalizing contrast to Mister's ordinary child- and home-caring tasks, as she navigates bill payments and service calls.

Mary Rose and her family live in the Annex, one of Toronto's oldest downtown neighbourhoods and an area I'm quite familiar with. I enjoyed reading the references to the streets and shops of the neighbourhood. It's rare that I get to read a book with such a familiar setting. Plus, like the main character (and MacDonald herself) I have family roots in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. At one point, Mister reflects on a childhood visit to Cape Breton spent in the "broad bosom" of her mother's family on the beautiful Bras d'Or lakes. Over the years, I have visited my uncle at his lovely home backing onto the Bras d'Or lakes, and my grandmother lived nearby for many years. So, Adult Onset has a familiarity that I found comforting.

Also familiar were the seemingly innocuous but somehow escalating arguments that Mary Rose experiences with her partner during long-distance phone calls. I found it interesting and amusing that this same-sex couple has the same type of arguments as any married couple. Excuse my ignorance, but somehow I figured it would be easier to live with another woman.

If you know anything about Ann-Marie MacDonald (and I don't claim to know much), clearly there is an autobiographical component to Adult Onset. For one thing, she and Mary Rose share the experience of being (harshly) rejected by their families for being gay. Like when your mom wishes you had cancer rather than being homosexual. Harsh. You can read more about that in this article in The Globe and Mail.

Being not-the-perfect-parent myself, I identified with Mary Rose's challenges. It put me in mind of those all-consuming days when my kids were small and completely reliant on me for just about everything. As Mary Rose comes close to snapping, I think most moms will identify with her plight. It is sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable, definitely familiar and always interesting. Adult Onset doesn't have the epic feel of Fall On Your Knees, but perhaps they don't need to be compared. This novel has its own, more simple beauty and truth.

Have you read Adult Onset? What are you reading now?


  1. I really enjoyed Fall on Your Knees too, the second book not as much, but this one sounds quite interesting!

    I saw the movie Unbroken over the holidays, I'm starting that book tonight, the movie is so good!

    1. Fall On Your Knees was a great one, for sure.

      Unbroken looks really good! I'm glad to know that you enjoyed it. I'll have to check it out.

  2. a few months back 'chatelaine' featured a excerpt from this novel which i really enjoyed. perhaps i was projecting but i felt like an undercurrent of the story was the physical anxiety she experiences which inevitably falls to the bottom of the priorities list while she cares for everyone before her own self. thanks for the well written review, you have me wanting to read the entire story.

    1. Oh, I didn't see the excerpt Chrissy! I must have missed that issue of Chatelaine on my iPad. You are right, there is definitely a physical anxiety component and that feeling that I'm sure all mothers experience of being bottom of the list in terms of priorities. I hope you enjoy the book!