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Jennifer Nachshen

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

December 04, 2014 × Books

Full disclosure: I loved Fall on your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s first epic novel set in Cape Breton. She’d hidden a bigger story within the novel, revealing it bit by bit, starting with that initial feeling that something wasn’t quite right and finishing with a horrifying recognition of what you should have seen the whole time. I ate that book up on a train in Europe at age 22, in between karaoke with Australians in a bar in Belgium and fireworks in Paris with a motley crew of travelers. I was just out of university and it was one of the first real, big books I’d read since graduating. At least, it was the first big book I’d read simply because I wanted to, and it made me feel very literary and quite grown-up. How many other travelers were clutching a tome such as mine? Not many, I can assure you. It was actually fairly heavy. Maybe they knew something I didn’t about traveling.

I skipped As the Crow Flies. I’m not sure why, but it just didn’t pull at me.

When my book club chose MacDonald’s latest, Adult Onset, as our next read, I excitedly downloaded it to my Kobo, and realized how very old I was. Last time I read Ann-Marie MacDonald, I was a recent graduate galavanting around Europe and there was no such thing as a Kobo or an app or an ipad.

Seems like Ann-Marie and I are both feeling a bit old.


Adult Onset is the story of a mother, Mary Rose MacKinnon (also known as Mr., because of her initials MR) whose life reveals itself to her over the course of seven days and 400 pages, woven in between the carefully observed drudgery of temporary single motherhood (her wife, Hilary, is off in Winnipeg…or is it Calgary? directing a play). As she makes sure her children are wearing boots and eating organic, she thinks about her own parents (who seemed suspiciously familiar enough for me to pull out my copy of Fall on your Knees to check if this wasn’t meant to be a sequel. It’s not.) and gains insight into her own history of bone cysts, broken arms and stillborn siblings. While making sure the kids get to school on time. Ugh, right?

Mary Rose is a writer, specifically, the author of two-thirds of a YA novel trilogy (the third is in progress…but first! Pick the kids up from school) set in parallel universes and snippets of that story are included, offering insight into her experiences through the facts she lets slip in her fiction. She also hints heavily and somewhat coyly at the themes of abuse, incest and mental illness that any person wondering if this is a sequel to Fall on your Knees might find themselves expecting early on. I wanted more of the YA novel.

The writing is beautiful. So beautiful. Her turn of phrase is gorgeous and, perhaps if I had not read Fall on your Knees, I might have appreciated the slow, smoky curl of realization more. Perhaps it’s not being a mother (as some members of my book club insisted) that I could not fully appreciate the frantic monotony of child-rearing for 400 pages, despite the moments of memory and meaning-making it inspired. It was argued at my bookclub that the experience of motherhood is rarely well-represented in literature, but I’m not so sure that’s true. Female protagonists in their forties are almost always struggling with motherhood in one way or another (et tu, Bridget Jones?). Perhaps this one is written better than most, but it doesn’t mean that Mary Rose MacKinnon’s inner world was one I wanted to visit, let alone live in for a full week.

It’s like The Beatles, I explained to my book club. I know their songs are great. Groundbreaking, even. I just don’t want to listen to them.

But I think I will pick up a copy of As the Crow Flies.

Final decision: Brilliant, beautiful and boring.

Next up is How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. I’m a few chapters in and already giggling too loud past bedtime. For the next book after (we always vote two in advance) we voted between The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and The Children Act by Ian McEwan. McEwan took Burton by a small margin.  

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