Adult Onset

by Ann-Marie MacDonald

(Tin House, $25.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Just like her protagonist, Mary Rose MacKinnon, Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald is a best-selling novelist with a wife and two children. She also is a playwright, an actor and a broadcaster. Her previous books include Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Belle Moral: A Natural History, Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies.

What is this book about?

Mary Rose is caught in a bind. Trying hard to take care of her two young kids while her partner, a theater director, is out of town for a very long week, and also dealing with her aging and increasingly difficult parents, she is suffering a massive case of writer’s block and cannot seem to finish the third book in her YA trilogy. Worse, she is full of general anxiety and suffering a return of a painful arm condition that marred her childhood, physical pain that brings up sad memories of being the surviving child of a mother prone to miscarriages and stillbirths. And though her parents have come to accept her lesbian life and partner, some tensions remain. Motherhood can be wonderful, but Mary Rose, at 48, is learning that its realities are far from idyllic and that family ties can be tangled and constraining as well as sustaining.

Why you’ll like it:

Anyone who has spent time as a solo parent or has had a difficult childhood will understand and sympathize with what Mary Rose is going through in this tautly written novel. And even if that has not been the reader’s personal experience, MacDonald writes with the kind of power that makes Mary Rose believable and calls forth empathy. This book delineates the pleasures and pitfalls of mothering in a compelling and provocative way.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “MacDonald’s riveting drama features 48-year-old Mary Rose MacKinnon as she dutifully cares for her two young children in Toronto, outwardly making all the right choices with organic foods and extreme toddler proofing. Inwardly, however, she frets over potential disaster scenarios while struggling to retain a sense of self. Although Mary Rose writes young adult fiction and has a loyal fan base, she can’t make headway on the third novel in her trilogy. “She never imagined she would be a ‘morning person’ or drive a station wagon or be capable of following printed instructions for an array of domestic contraptions that come with some assembly required; until now, the only thing she had ever been able to assemble was a story.” During a week when her partner, Hilary, is out of town, Mary Rose reflects on her tumultuous childhood, which forced her to shoulder survivor’s guilt after the loss of would-be siblings, while coping with her lifelong painful bone condition. Glimmers of escalating anger—a family trait—begin to creep through her constructed veneer in Hilary’s absence. MacDonald’s strong narrative is a compelling examination of the loneliness and the often-absurd helplessness of being a parent of young children.”

Says Library Journal: “As winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and a finalist for many more, Canadian author MacDonald comes with sterling credentials reflected in the engrossing flow of this book. YA fiction author Mary Rose MacKinnon has put her career on hold to tend to the two young children she has with her partner, Hil, who’s spreading her wings as a theater director. The frazzled insanity of parenthood is well rendered here, but Mary Rose is also dealing with physical and psychic pain from her past. Her military father and unbalanced mother, Dolly, of Lebanese descent, lost two babies, including one who would have been named Mary Rose, and as a youngster Mary Rose suffered pain in her arm that led to multiple bone surgeries. The pain is returning, as is a sense that there’s more to her difficulties than her parents admit. In addition, their resistance when she came out has melted but still troubles Mary Rose, who’s worrying Hil by drifting closer to the edge. VERDICT Though the book seems somewhat drawn out, the fine, clearly detailed writing makes for an accomplished read blending the familiar parental/spousal angst with the specifics of Mary Rose’s struggle.”

Kirkus Review says: “Assaulted by mysterious pains and bracketed by painful childhood memories, Mary Rose MacKinnon engages in power struggles with her willful toddler and endures the stresses of stay-at-home parenting while her partner, Hilary, is out of town. An acclaimed young-adult novelist, Mary Rose is suffering from severe writer’s block, unable to complete the third volume in her popular series. Despite the surface comforts of life in her liberal, upper-middle-class Toronto enclave, she feels an inexplicable sense of alienation from her environment; she distances herself from the other mothers at her child’s preschool and avoids communication with her own parents, despite their belated acceptance of her homosexuality and loving acceptance of Hilary and their grandchildren. When Mary Rose’s charming Lebanese mother, Dolly, was younger, she had numerous miscarriages, stillbirths and babies who died shortly after birth, and she seems to be fixating on this tragic period many decades later. The effect of this sad legacy on family dynamics has never been fully explored, and Mary Rose has many vague, unspoken questions about her own childhood, the answers to which might help explain her emotional paralysis and phantom arm pains, as well as the mysterious bone cysts she suffered as a young girl. MacDonald  integrates three narratives into this novel—Mary Rose’s mundane day-to-day existence, Dolly’s experience of severe depression as a young mother lamenting her lost babies, and Mary Rose’s novels, which parallel elements of her own family story distorted through the lens of teen fantasy fiction. While clever, the novel within the novel seems a bit forced. There is a recurring theme of impostors and doppelgängers and a shrewd twinning motif, but the reader is always conscious of the writer’s craft. Of the three, Dolly’s story is the most naturalistically and sensitively portrayed. Despite the too-neat Freudian implications of Mary Rose’s story, this is an affecting, multilayered account of domestic ennui and the painful effects of long-held secrets on three generations.”

“[Adult Onset is] the most accurate description of solo parenting I’ve ever read . . . [MacDonald’s] writing is dizzying and brilliant, and often disorienting, which beautifully supports the novel’s themes, perfectly capturing how it feels to be unmoored and seemingly alone,” says the Associated Press.

“If you’re of [an anxious] disposition, reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest novel, Adult Onset, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s certainly an accurate depiction, and best described as exposure therapy—an exercise in committing yourself to multiple hours of low-grade anxiety, like walking into a crowded, sweltering room if you’re claustrophobic, wandering a fluorescent-lit hospital if you’re a hypochondriac, or travelling a long distance via air if you have a fear of flying. There’s an inexplicable sense of doom to overcome if you’re going to get through it, a looming spectre of disaster, even if all seems well on the surface as you turn each page. Adult Onset is MacDonald’s long-awaited third novel, following her highly successful blockbuster 1996 debut, Fall on Your Knees, and her 2003 Giller Prize shortlisted The Way The Crow Flies. . . . At its core, Adult Onset is about what happens when we are unable to face the physical and emotional pain of our past head on, and how the chronic illness of trauma will haunt even the most insignificant moments of our days. . . . It is a high achievement for a writer to portray the persistent worry of avoidance in a way than rings true, and MacDonald has beyond succeeded. It is in this sense that Adult Onset is both a book that is difficult to endure, and one worthy of our praise and attention. . . . Many of us will see ourselves in the profound discomfort MacDonald has conjured, and though the narrative lends itself to frustration as a result, the book is an absolute triumph of terrifying authenticity,” says the National Post.

When is it available?

You can borrow this novel from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.