Book review: Adult Onset

What happens over the course of a week? You tidy the kitchen, play with your dog, call your mom.

But even in an uneventful week — grocery shopping, laundry, maybe lunch with a friend — one’s entire universe may shift.

Best-selling Canadian author Ann Marie MacDonald’s latest work Adult Onset is the story of a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, or “Mister”, a play on her initials MR.

She’s a stay-at-home mother, wife, concerned sister and beleaguered daughter. At the beginning of the novel, the story feels almost as if it’s in real time, with no detail withheld.

Drinking a cup of tea includes rising from a chair, finding the cup, the tea bag, boiling the kettle, a quick look at the calendar — and so on.

But the tedium of those activities isn’t tedious; it’s fascinating as a result of the stunning and richly told psychological realism.

The novel mirrors the mind’s fragmentation between the past and the present, the present and our dreams, through the insertion of vivid and emotional flashbacks. As Mary Rose receives a Christmas tree stand in the mail, her grandmother miscarries at the age of 14.

The juxtapositions throughout Adult Onset imbue the present with an eeriness and profound poignancy. The effect is one of “temporal layering”, a term created by Queen’s University professor Dr. Patricia Rae, in which many times exist simultaneously.

Mary Rose is physically and emotionally abused and neglected as a child, ultimately resulting in her developing bone cysts in her arm. The “adult onset” of that pain in her arm in the present stimulates her anxiety about the past.

As she interacts with her own two children, she is consumed with the memories of her own traumatic childhood, from her mother’s physical abuse to her parent’s joint rejection of her upon their daughter’s coming out.

The use of the flashbacks paints a circular portrait of family relationships and inheritance. Repeated phrases, actions and emotions are deployed with a jarring effect.

Watching Mary Rose’s unresolved issues burst into rage at her two-year-old daughter just as her mother did to her is a harrowing experience.

I sat with the book in my lap pleading with her, entirely consumed by the realism of the moment: “Don’t do it, Mary Rose! You don’t have to be your mom!” This last sentiment lies at the novel’s emotional core and rings a bit like the opening of a Carrie Bradshaw column — “Even if we fight it, are we really all destined to become our mothers?”

Spoiler alert: the answer is no. Mary Rose’s journey to acknowledge the failings of her parents in order to become the healthy mother she aspires to be is ultimately a successful one — or at least, as successful as it can be. Admittedly, the journey occasionally felt a little prolonged for me as a reader, especially as someone who hasn’t had children.

However, I could recognize and identify with the other elements of family relationships, daily life and fun, distinctly Canadian references to connect with the book.

That connection was also facilitated by the humour of Adult Onset. Amazingly, despite all of the tragedy and heavy subject matter of MacDonald’s novel, it’s hilarious. The darkness is so deftly handled it isn’t overwhelming or depressing.

MacDonald is capable of the kind of humour every writer out there is shooting for. She’s at turns sarcastic, punchy, subtle and equally laugh-out-loud funny and smirk inducing.

The novel is a triumphant balancing act of humour and tragedy, routine and magic. In short, her writing style alone is brilliant and entirely worth the price of a 384-page novel.

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