Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, recently married to an older man. It’s not the age difference that triggers their painful arguments, nor even Edwyn’s ill-health, but their mutual difficulties with attachment: desperate for love while detesting the dependency their intimacy brings. While neither has previously lived with a partner, I don’t think it’s the “first love” between Neve and Edwyn to which the title of Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel refers, but the love they failed to find in their formative relationships with their parents.
We don’t learn much about Edwyn’s childhood, but the narrator, Neve, analyses a lifetime of disappointments with both parents and previous lovers. Her narcissistic mother is both neglectful and intrusive: after hosting her for a couple of nights in her Glasgow flat, Neve finds “that voice was still tripping about my mind. When I lay down to sleep I heard her yapping and thought I really would go mad.” Although her parents separated when Neve was four, she and her brother were forced to continue seeing their menacing father until their late teens. It’s clear her early childhood was blighted by her father’s violence – if not to her directly, then certainly indirectly when her mother was hit about the head when breastfeeding – and her mother’s fear, suffering panic attacks during pregnancy.
In a fragmented narrative moving back and forth across time (although very easy to follow), we learn that Neve’s kisses have been rejected at various points by her mother, her father and Edwyn too. Gentler with his fists, but nevertheless as much a bully as Neve’s own father, and like the husband in When I Hit You, the misogynistic Edwyn pins the blame for all the problems in the marriage on Neve.
Self-reflective, with enough insight into her predicament to recognise the need to change, but not enough to achieve it, Neve presents as a prime candidate for therapy. Although she suggests it at some point for her mother, whose hectic social life seems a defence against extreme loneliness, Neve abandoned hers after only seven months (she probably needs at least seven years) immediately before her marriage, as if she really believed Edwyn would be the solution to all her problems.
While the blurb refers to the “glittering humour”, I found this novel terribly sad. Yes, I suppose most of us can find moments of identification in a tale about a miserable marriage – don’t we all struggle with our failures to attain some mystical ideal? – but the only positive I could see was that the couple haven’t had children. That’s not to say I didn’t find this novel compelling; indeed, it’s always a delight to find such an astute depiction of insecure attachment.
Thanks to Granta books for my review copy.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
What constitutes a grown-up? Is it assessed by societal standards or is up to the individual themselves to decide? Is it about reaching certain milestones of age or identity accessories or does it come with accepting life’s limitations and our own? That seems to be the subject of Jami Attenberg’s fifth novel about a New Yorker in her thirties without marriage, children or a successful career.
I say “seems” because, like life itself, there’s no plot to Andrea’s story. Indeed, the fragments of her life seemed laid down at random, not so much because of the irregular timeline but because we’re continually introduced to characters and episodes we’ve met before. Andrea is witty, self-deprecating, both insightful and deluded, although I didn’t find her as amusing as other reviewers seem to have done. I actually found her quite irritating as one of those wounded people who isn’t wounded enough to do something about it.
Raised in genteel poverty, with an adored musician father who died of a heroin overdose when she was fifteen, and subjected to the unwanted attentions of the middle-aged men at her mother’s supper parties, Andrea is indeed wounded. Then there’s the art she’s lived for, abandoned when she realises she’s not cut out for (p94):
a life-time of being told no, with the occasional yes showing up just to give you enough hope to carry on. I’m beginning to realize I don’t want to be rejected my entire life.
A good place to start a therapy, yet Andrea uses hers as one would a hairdresser, making appointments on an ad hoc basis rather than committing to a regular session. But I can hardly blame her when her therapist isn’t much cop either, enabling her erratic attendance rather than interpreting it as a step towards examining the insecure attachments in the rest of her life. I cringed when, in response to Andrea’s complaint about her mother moving to New Hampshire to support her brother and his wife and their terminally ill baby, she comes up with the cliché “And how does that make you feel?” (p65) But worse is to come. When Andrea, revealing her envy of the sick baby, says “It makes me feel she doesn’t love me” the therapist dictates how she should feel, pointing out how much her mother has nurtured and cared for her already. We don’t get to see Andrea’s hairdresser in action, but I’m sure mine (who happens to be a great supporter of my novels) could do better.
The quote from Hadley Freeman on the front of my copy describes All Grown Up as “One of the smartest and truest novels I’ve read about being a single woman”. While Andrea has some entertaining things to say about other people’s attitude to her single status – including urging her to read “a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married” (p9) – and sometimes feels life is happening to other people and leaving her behind, the concept seems as enigmatic as being grown-up. Which might be Jami Attenberg’s point.
Certainly this book has got under my skin and, despite my gripes, not entirely in a bad way. Published by Serpent’s Tail (who provided my review copy), All Grown Up would spark some lively book-group discussions. Do let me know what you think.