30 May 2011

Alison Espach's THE ADULTS: Everybody knows it sucks to grow up

Consider Alison Espach's debut as three novellas about and narrated by the same character at various points in her life. The third is sublime, the second is tedious, and the first is tragic and difficult to take; but to get the full effect of the third, it's necessary to push and halt through the others.

When THE ADULTS opens Emily Vidal is 14, the only child of a family in a suburban Connecticut enclave, and her parents have just decided to get divorced. Two things happen to Emily that year: She witnesses the death of a neighbor, and she gets involved in a rather complicated relationship, and coupled with the effects of the divorce, those experiences follow her into adulthood as we revisit her later in life.

Hyperdetailed, almost painful, this first section can be overwhelming to the extent to which it forces you behind Emily's eyes. The ADULTS opens with this sort of set piece at Emily's father's fiftieth birthday party out on the lawn, at which Emily (as teenagers do) is sulky, disruptive and in a way envious of all the other people who know what they ought to be doing. (Or so it seems to her.) The boy who likes her and the boy she likes are both at the party, and hard to separate. She doesn't know where she stands with her best friend. The accumulation of detail is critical, but a little bit hard to take.

There's an overabundance of detail in the second section as well, but it isn't till the third section that it all snaps together. Not every sentence is packed with detail, but they all are pulling in unison toward a greater picture -- my favorite example being, and this is completely out of context, "Jonathan was asking me if I would like to pass him the bread basket as though it were an option to deny someone the bread basket." These are sentences that cut, but they also advance the conception of Emily as she moves away from these life-changing events and, yes, tries to measure her own maturity against the adults around her. I wouldn't call the second section of THE ADULTS a failure by that sense, but the details highlighted pull against any meaningful characterization that is going on, so the reader feels yanked in both directions at once.

As disturbing as I occasionally found THE ADULTS, it stays with me. That said, I had trouble finding the momentum to finish this book because some of the circumstances described in the beginning are difficult to comprehend. If having the impulse to shout at a fictional character (or a few) is not fun for you, you're not going to even get through the beginning of this book, but if you can hang on: it gets better.

My interest in this book was piqued when I saw Espach compete in Literary Death Match earlier this year

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