Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald: Things get better

Adult OnsetYou may remember Ann-Marie MacDonald’s name from her second novel, The Way the Crow Flies. It was about a Canadian murder case – a miscarriage of justice – and I seem to remember that it had quite a lot of favourable attention when it was published in the UK ten years ago. Adult Onset is entirely different but it does have echoes of her first novel, Fall On Your Knees, in which a young Canadian falls in love with a Lebanese girl at the beginning of the twentieth century and elopes with her: she’s thirteen. In her third novel, the main protagonist is the granddaughter of a Lebanese woman married at twelve. They did things differently then, it seems. As Mary Rose’s video, aimed at helping teenagers struggling with their sexual identity suggests : ‘Things get better’.

Mary Rose is forty-eight and the mother of two children, two-year-old Maggie and five-year-old Matthew. She’s been an actor, a screenwriter and is the author of two successful young adult fantasy novels but now she’s staying at home looking after the kids. Like every parent of young children, her hands are full to overflowing. Just getting out of the door with a two-year-old is a battle and then there are her mother’s constant phone calls and worrying memory lapses, the conversational loops she seems to fall into. Mary Rose leads a typical liberal parent’s life – she buys organic veg, makes sure her kids have the right snacks, attempts to reason them out of their tantrums and takes Maggie to various educational but entertaining toddler pursuits. She worries about her children’s well-being, trying desperately to make everything as safe as she possibly can, but what terrifies her most is her own temper. Adult Onset follows Mary Rose through a week spent wrestling with the legacy of her childhood and struggling to single parent while her wife works at the other end of the country.

The novel roams around Mary Rose’s life, cutting back and forth between her troubling childhood memories and her day-to-day domestic life – her head full of the what-ifs, must-dos and guilt of the average parent – interspersed with scraps of narrative from her parents’ earlier years, beset with the misery of stillbirths, infant deaths and post-natal depression. A picture emerges of a mother who hurled verbal and physical abuse at her children unhindered by the father Mary Rose idolises who failed to intervene or protect his children, insisting that his baby son stop crying as that’s what sissies do. There’s a welcome vein of dark humour running through her novel but what MacDonald is most successful at is capturing the lonely claustrophobia of child-rearing. My one complaint is its length: Mary Rose’s conclusions about the origin of her bone cysts – the condition that led to surgery not once but twice and has resulted in a recurring ‘remembered pain’ – are tortuously reached as well they might be for someone who has not faced her past until parenthood forces it upon her, but readers are likely to get there well before she does. That said MacDonald’s portrayal of the all too easily perpetrated cycle of abuse rings horribly true. Not an easy read then, but a brave and absorbing one which had me gripped towards the end.

8 thoughts on “Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald: Things get better”

  1. When I first read the title I thought you had written a book .

    Not sure I’m ready for this one tbh ….still recovering from A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing !!!

    1. It’s not an easy read, Helen. She’s very good at making you feel as if you’re inside Mary Rose’s head and it’s not a very comfortable place to be. Hope the Baileys reading is progressing well.

  2. Sounds a difficult read – but worth perseverance as while there are numerous memoirs that recall & tackle issues of stillbirth, seemingly very few in fiction… Interested to see how that is handled

    1. It is, Poppy. The stillbirths were in Mary Rose’s childhood when things were handled with far less sensitively than it seems they are now. It’s a brave book and must have been a hard one to write.

  3. I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck just reading your review! I’ve had my eye on this but might swerve it for now, there’s only so much misery I can take!

    Thought your introduction was interesting – I didn’t know there was a novel between this and Fall On Your Knees! I know her first because it was an Oprah choice.

  4. My first reaction is … the canadian cover is much better! I didn’t realize that As The Crow Flies caused a stir over here. I love MacDonald and this book. It is much different from her other works, but still brilliant. And oh boy, could I relate!

    1. It’s certainly more subtle! I’m not entirely sure what the UK jacket is trying to convey. It seems to be more a vehicle for the Emma Donoghue quote than anything else. I found it a difficult read – she is extraordinarily effective at taking you inside Mary Rose’s head which is a very uncomfortable place to be but that’s the point of the novel.

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