Saturday 19 October 2019

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg review - A wicked brew of truth-telling and fearlessness

Fiction: All Grown Up Jami Attenberg Serpent's Tail, hdbk, 207 pages, €18.99

The single, childless protagonist often falls into the trap of sentimentality but this anti-heroine has a dazzlingly fresh quality as she navigates life, writes Tanya Sweeney

Keeping it real: Attenberg’s writing evokes the likes of Sheila Heti and Lena Dunham
Keeping it real: Attenberg’s writing evokes the likes of Sheila Heti and Lena Dunham
All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg

Tanya Sweeney

Whether in literature or pop culture, there has been no dearth of single, childless, female protagonists. Still, they operate on a narrow enough spectrum, whether as free-wheeling lady-shambles, salty sexual libertines, or women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (or, at the very least, an existential wobble).

Jami Attenberg's heroine Andrea is occasionally all of these things. And like those who came before her, ad exec Andrea Bern is trying to find her way in life, and a place in the world, without the usual roadmap markers of success; a life partner, motherhood, an engagement ring, cash in the bank, the creative job of her dreams. Instead, there are clumsy sexual encounters, hard partying, and a well-meaning mother who slips you copies of books about being single. Not helping things along is the sinking realisation that those around her are clearing the furlongs with seemingly next-to-no effort. Her own happy ever after remains at large.

And here, Andrea departs from the usual single, child-free female trope. She is multi-faceted and imperfect - a shrieker in bed, a drinker, about to turn 40 - and, in many ways, she is sinking.

Andrea is moving to New York after dropping out of art school in Chicago. Yet it's a nice skew on the careworn cliche. Far from coming to seek a life of unabashed glamour, it's a wrong turn.

"For most people, moving to New York City is a gesture of ambition," Andrea tells herself in the book's opener. "But for you, it signifies failure, because you grew up there, so it just means you're moving back home after you couldn't make it in the world. Spiritually, it's a reverse commute."

Attenberg's prose remains zesty, sharp and thought-provoking throughout. And in a patchwork quilt of blackly humorous vignettes, taking the reader from friends' weddings to the fold-out bed in her brother's house, Andrea's complex life is laid bare.

Emotional contentment with a significant other is only one thing that Andrea craves; she also grapples at length with the idea of finally fulfilling her artistic destiny. And the shadow of her jazz-musician father's premature death from a drug overdose looms long.

Things veer into sharp focus with the birth of her niece; the child of her brother, who has also emerged from the same vaguely chaotic upbringing.

Andrea is on a drug-fuelled bender (punctuated by some awkward attempts at sex with her dealer), and misses the child's birth. The baby in question, sadly, has been born with a terminal birth defect, and this turn of events brings Andrea's ideas about happiness, success and what really matters in life into sharp focus.

When the marriages of her friends start to creak under the weight of perfection, there's a realisation: those getting over the furlongs first aren't necessarily the winners.

When it comes to penning a love letter to the sisterhood, it is a tendency of many writers of single, child-free heroines to load up on sugary sentimentality. These spinster heroines, often seen as pathetic and lacking in real life, are adorned with a veneer of glamour, and compensated with the sexiness of high drama. Very simply, Attenberg won't go there.

Andrea Bern is as maddening as she is flawed and cynical. And yet, she very rarely strays towards the pitiable. There's a real sense that while life is not working out the way she might have envisaged, she doesn't actually want much of what she thought she did.

And yet, many of the good things in Andrea's life - friendships, family relations - wither on the vine because of her own sheer inertia. This is a no-man's land that several single women will relate to, and yet it has remained largely unarticulated in literature. There's a grey area between deciding to actively shrug off life's big decisions, and feeling as though, somehow, a short hand has been dealt.

Tonally, Attenberg evokes naked, emotionally real works by the likes of Sheila Heti, Lena Dunham or even, if you squint for long enough, Woody Allen. On the cover jacket of All Grown Up, there are effusive blurbs by writers like Lisa Owens, Maria Semple and Melissa Broder. They are fitting additions, as Attenberg certainly writes in a similar stylistic vein.

The writing is blunt and unadorned; likely to reflect Andrea's dulled, world-weary mindset. And yet, there's something fresh and enquiring in Attenberg's writing; a gloriously technicolor quality to the voice of her anti-heroine. As is often the hallmark of these projects, much of the humour comes from a wicked brew of truth-telling, honesty and bravery. Of saying the unsayable. In this respect, Attenberg writes with a scalpel, and has presented one of the finest, and most unexpected, character studies you're likely to read all year.

There are big questions asked, and they're ones that every woman who has ever been in her thirties and single has put to herself. Why are so many people invested in the fact that single women are childless and unmarried? What if you don't want the same things that everyone else wants? What if society's signifiers of success aren't meant for me? How does a person become the architect of their own destiny? How will I react when life throws a real curve ball at me?

Even if you're a rare and fortunate person who has never had cause to ask yourself those questions, you too will find much to learn here.

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