Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up is a poignant examination of the disappointment of life not quite working out, and how a person can forge their identity in spite of it. One thing that people often lose sight of as they wind their way through life is that every individual experiences hardship, struggles with who they are, and has something dark and troubling in their past. Often, people are guilty of thinking of themselves as the only individuals who are having to endure trials and tribulations, but books are good reminders that this isn’t the case. Attenberg’s protagonist Andrea Bern is a particularly good reminder that things aren’t always what they seem.
In All Grown Up we catch glimpses of Andrea’s defining moments through a series of chapters rendered in a snap-shot like formation. We as readers become familiar with the disappointment Andrea experiences as she settles for a job that she doesn’t like, and as she perpetually struggles with the deeply discomforting reality that she is no longer a person who creates art. We see Andrea wrestle with her seemingly constant singleness and whether or not she is defined by it. Does a woman need children and a significant other to be fulfilled? Does she need to have them by a certain age? At what point does it become too late, when does it become meaningless?
We watch as the women in Andrea’s life who have embraced these institutions are abandoned by them. Her best friend, who seemingly has everything, the perfect husband, the perfect apartment, and a new baby gets a divorce. Her brother and sister in law, who also have had the perfect relationship give birth to a baby that is terminally ill, and the family is left reeling as they watch the baby girl live out her short life plagued by disease. Andrea watches as her married boss has an affair with one of her coworkers. In the wake of this string of heart-breaks, we are left wondering if one path is superior. It poses the timeless question; is it better to live alone and never feel the sharpened pangs of heart ache, or is it better to experience the joy of loving another person even if it means losing them later on?
This novel also explores the relationships between parents and their adult children, particularly the complexity of these relationships that can so often be understated. Andrea was sexually assaulted at multiple parties hosted by her mother following the death of her father, and we see how this has not only altered the course of Andrea’s life, but it has forever skewed the relationship she has with her mother, without removing the capacity for love and caring. We experience how two people who have been hurt by one another, and who keep hurting one another, are able to still keep going. How those two people are able to still find joy in the presence of one another.
Attenberg also unpacks the complicated stifling clinginess of grief. In this novel, readers witness the grief of losing a parent, of a parent losing a close friend, of losing a child, of ending relationships, and of settling for less. As we all probably know, there isn’t a graceful way to handle grief, and there isn’t a sure-fire way to shake it off. Attenberg does a remarkable job of exploring the way that grief has the ability to take over a person’s life, how it can force people to carve out new identities for themselves, and how it can utterly destroy even the strongest relationships.
She also confronts head on the choice between following your dreams and doing what makes you happy while most likely not earning enough money to live comfortably or adequately, OR earning enough money to live comfortably and being unhappy with your work and sacrificing your passions. I’m gonna’ go out on a limb here and say that most people who have a degree in any of the humanities can relate to this choice, and no matter which you choose you aren’t completely happy with life or yourself. You’re struggling either way, you’re choosing to give up something essential no matter which choice you make. We see Andrea’s friend Matthew devote his life to making art while giving up necessities, and we see Andrea forego making art to live a comfortable life.
To sum up, this book is beautiful. Andrea is a wonderfully messy character, her baggage feels familiar and real. Often, being a grown up isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Even more often we struggle to realize what it even means to be a “grown up.” How do you know when you are “a grown up?” What must one have to be considered “grown up?” And are these things material possessions or are they merely personality traits? While this novel doesn’t definitively answer any of these questions, as life does not provide these answers, it shows us (arguably what we should already know, but frequently lose sight of,) that life isn’t neat and tidy and that no one’s life is perfect. No one’s life turns out the way they plan, and that isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. It’s just life.