Jami Attenberg‘s All Grown Up was not one of my Book of the Month Club selections. Something about the cover made it seem silly and frivolous, like a new Sex and the City installment. I think maybe, the cover is one of the worst things about books; it either deters people from reading it or puts the reader in the position of being extremely confused once they actually read the book.
This story is not, in fact, a re-hashed narrative from the likes of Carrie Bradshaw; rather it’s a 40-year-old woman’s reflection of her life in a series of vignettes that focus on different points of her life. Andrea Bern, an art school dropout, has spent her years filling the space that art left behind. She’s a more than occasional drug user and steady drinker—a free lover who doesn’t have much luck. And she will not apologize for her choice to be single and childless.
Each chapter concerns a person or moment in Andrea’s life that is crucial to her development as a character. For example, the birth of her niece, Sigrid, brings much more sorrow than joy; the child has a degenerative heart defect, which she will die from by the age of five. Self-immolating for years, Andrea can’t quite reach out to the child the way an aunt should, and, when her brother and his wife move to New Hampshire to care for Sigrid, Andrea rarely ever visits. She can’t handle the strain of the baby’s imminent death.
In another instance, one of Andrea’s closest friends gives birth to a son, and she truly believes that they will no longer be friends. Her analysis of the situation—at once comical and anxiety-laden—reveals her fundamental beliefs that those who have children and those who do not lose their ability to communicate with each other. Andrea does a lot this throughout the book—she examines, analyzes.
Attenberg does an efficient job of introducing the reader to Andrea’s quirks and insecurities, but the novel’s best moments come after the books halfway point. As Andrea reveals more about her past and gives the reader a better sense of how her life comes to be what it is, she furnishes sharp, heartbreaking insights into the darkest parts of her past.
Andrea presents the facts of her life without sentiment. Attenberg wisely gives her healthy dose of reliable narration, which allows the reader to see her as she is: no filter. The novel’s most stunning and hard hitting moments come in the final two chapters when Andrea’s drug-addicted father imbues her with the wisdom of artist’s, the heart of which, the reader will realize, she has internalized her entire life; the artist’s endless search for happiness and fulfillment will never come. Only through the art itself will the artist find something like contentment. And the novel’s final moments concern the death of young Sigrid—the real darkness underlying the entire novel.
In that moment, Andrea is left only with her hopes for what will happen. To herself and her family. The uncertainty with which Attenberg leaves the reader is the greatest farewell.