Michelle Smith’s piece on Devon appeared in CWA in July 2014. Author of the poetry book dear Hermes…, she and co-author Faye Hammill recently published the monograph Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture: Canadian Periodicals (Liverpool University Press and University of Alberta Press). The magazine covers on their website are not only a bit of time travel but also show how the middle class were tantalized into travel. Smith moved to the UK in 2006 and resides in Glasgow. Below is her review of Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald.
Review of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, Sceptre: London, 2014.
Reviewed by Michelle Smith
I have one key thing in common with Mary Rose MacKinnon, the protagonist of Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald: I’m a writer with two children. In an unusually productive week, I spend about 80% of my waking hours with my kids; and the other 20% is fragmented into writing, paid work, a social life, a bit of exercise, and a tiny bit of reading. Indeed, my e-reader has informed me that my average reading session is nine minutes long, and that I manage to read for only 17 minutes a day. Given that I have so little reading time, I demand a lot from what I read: riveting prose, utterly believable characters, surprising plot twists – I expect all of these, and more. MacDonald is a talented writer, with a good ear (her brother “closes the car door with a substantial Bavarian thunk” (63)) and eye (“he can see roots, severed white, the earth still a living network” (89)) for detail, not to mention a gift for representing psychological pain. The book is well-written, yet it doesn’t quite hold together and, after some reflection, I think there are two reasons for this: a certain degree of implausibility and a tendency to tell, rather than show, what the protagonist is experiencing.
Despite, or because of, my situation being similar to Mary Rose’s, I found myself thinking that the details of Mary Rose’s day-to-day life were accurate, yet, somehow, not entirely plausible. I know this sounds a bit contradictory, so let me explain. Adult Onset begins with a lengthy description of Mary Rose’s morning at home with her toddler. She is struggling to write an email to her father, partly because she hasn’t dealt with her the hurt she still harbours from when she came out to her parents years ago, and partly because she is constantly interrupted by both her toddler, Maggie, and her mother, Dolly. It’s a scene that should correlate with stay-at-home, middle-aged parenthood, but it doesn’t, not quite. Mary Rose and her surroundings are a trifle too composed. There are possible explanations for what we can sense is a deliberately over-calmness, and hints that she is repressing something — maybe a lot of somethings — but I kept waiting for Maggie’s sticky fingers to muck up the laptop screen, for spilled juice to frazzle the motherboard, for a proper tantrum rather than a moment in which “the mother escalates with the offer of jam on a rice cake. The child, after a dangerous pause, accepts” (6). As the story unfolds, we get a clear picture of Mary Rose’s busy day-to-day life, but the chaos and confusion of having small children underfoot is somehow absent. Without being able to believe, fully, in this the early scenes that introduce her domestic life, I couldn’t entirely engage with the story that followed, either.
There are two narrative strands to follow, one that takes place in the present, and one that is set during Mary Rose’s childhood. I grew increasingly restless as I read the scenes set in the present, and eventually decided that this strand tells, rather than shows, a little too often. MacDonald gives us a character who is both self-aware, and often analytical, about her own state of mind and experiences, whilst being unaware, or at least uncertain, of crucial parts of her past that define her. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it wobbles a bit when readers are told how Mary Rose feels. For example, “Mary Rose envies it somewhat, this ability to turn on the waterworks and get some relief and sympathy” (161-2) when her wife, away from home and missing her family, begins to cry towards the end of a telephone conversation. It’s the kind of moment that prevents us from fully engaging with the emotional content of the novel.
In contrast, the flashbacks to Mary Rose’s childhood, which are often short and intense, are more compelling. Readers are in the moment with the characters, and the writing works. I also admire MacDonald’s decision to write about miscarriage and stillbirth, and the traumatic effect it has on the MacKinnon family, with one such passage describing the moments between the birth and death of a child: “The priest performs the baptism just in time, and the nurse asks the young air force officer if he would like to hold the baby. He nods and she places his son, wrapped in a yellow receiving blanket, in his arms. The corridor is strung with tinsel. At the nurse’s station a small tree stands on the counter. They have named him Alexander” (48-49). It’s a deceptively simple passage that takes us to another era, and into the shock and the pain of that one moment, knowing that that moment shapes everything that follows.
CWA interview with Ann-Marie MacDonald.
Website for Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture in Canada 1925-1960.
Michelle Smith and Faye Hammill, “Mainstream Magazines: Home and Mobility,” in The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature edited by Cynthia Sugars.