Book Review: Ann-Marie MacDonald's Adult Onset

Posted by Wayves volunteer 16/02/2015

By Rebecca Rose

I did not like the protagonist in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest novel Adult Onset.

Admitting that in print, however, feels akin to saying I don’t like Ann-Marie MacDonald. MacDonald, of Fall On Your Knees, of the Giller Prize shortlist, MacDonald with the Cape Breton roots.

That the book is drawn from MacDonald’s own life is known. The main character is Mary Rose MacKinnon: an author, a lesbian, married to a theatre director and staying home with their two children. The daughter of a Lebanese-Canadian mother and a father (formerly) in the Canadian Armed Forces, born in Germany and initially rejected by her parents after coming out.

The book is a week in the life of Mary Rose, also know as “MR” or “Mister”, each chapter a day. Its nearly 400 pages (primarily stream of consciousness), brim with detail. The reader knows that something paradigm shifting is bound to happen, but does not know when.

Amongst the grind of the every day with young children, Mary Rose obsesses over and attempts to find answers to grey areas of her family’s history, her relationship with her mother and past traumas. All spurred by the return of a gnawing pain in her arm and an email from her father about her and her wife’s “It Gets Better” video.

The structure of the novel, specifically how MacDonald weaves Mary Rose’s story with her mother’s (Dolly’s), is fascinating. The insertion of Dolly’s story, losing two babies and struggling with post-partum depression in the early 1960’s, is the most engaging aspect of the first ¾ of the book.

In present day, however Dolly is a constant source of frustration, both for Mary Rose and the reader. The elderly (and abrasive) Dolly is losing her memory and repeats herself ad nauseam. MacDonald includes a great deal of dialogue, making the reader privy to Dolly’s incessant repetition. I imagine that this is intentional, illustrating, as opposed to stating, how frustrating Mary Rose’s mother can be. It is tiring and thus, I suppose, effective.

I am actually unsure as to whether or not the reader is meant to like Mary Rose, or if we need to in order to get something from, or enjoy, the book. I found her to be both pretentious and judgemental. Mary Rose internally corrects people’s grammar, including that of the woman on the street corner asking for spare change. She wonders “how people who are less aware and educated than she is manage to avoid murdering their offspring.”

Despite being a self-proclaimed feminist, Mary Rose comments on her ex’s weight and attire noting, “surely, however, it is too early in the day for cleavage”. She describes a stranger at Starbucks as “the bag lady with the elephant ankles” making sure to wipe down the table with a baby-wipe when she takes her spot.

Ann-Marie MacDonald's new novel explores themes of motherhood and inherited trauma.

Adult Onset’s protagonist (and author) is a gay woman, yes, but the book presents a very homonormative, bourgie, glimpse of gay life. Mary Rose and her wife are a middle, if not upper class, married couple with two kids. It is difficult to determine, however, if MacDonald chose to portray Mary Rose’s lifestyle in this way as a commentary on privilege (same goes for the above mentioned inner monologue).

The queerest moment of the book comes towards the end with the introduction of long-time friend Gigi with her slicked backed curls and leather jacket. Of Gigi MacDonald writes: “She called herself a dyke back when you could still get beaten up for it on a Friday night, she called herself a dyke when you could be censured for it by lesbian feminists, she called herself a dyke when lesbian feminists reclaimed the word, and she still calls herself a dyke now that ‘queer’ has rendered the term quaint.”

Adult Onset finishes on an uplifting note. Given, however, how slowly the first part of the book unfurled, and what Mary Rose endured during the last 70 pages, it felt as if it resolved too quickly.

While the first ¾ of the book felt drawn-out, the last quarter unwinds (as do Mary Rose’s life and mental health) at a stunning pace. She gets (some of) her answers and as MacDonald writes: “nothing has ever been hidden, she is merely putting the bits together.” Mary Rose’s struggles with anger management, mental health, self-harm and conflict within her marriage all come to the fore.

At the book’s core is how trauma manifests and is passed down through generations; how it impact’s one’s relationships with self, family and partners, as well as to motherhood. It is about breaking the cycle and how, as MacDonald writes, to “enact the change is to experience by contrast the shocking nature of what preceded it.” In Adult Onset, MacDonald writes about trauma in very smart, realistic, complex, and heartbreaking ways.

The take away: a message to other mothers suffering alone that they are not actually alone, that they are not monsters. “Why is it not a truth universally acknowledged that an absence of trauma under these conditions is remarkable.” Also, a message about forgiveness and coping with trauma: MacDonald writes, “A house fell on her last night. Her whole mother fell on her, yet here she is playing in the rubble, and wearing a macaroni necklace.”

Editor's Note: Rebecca Rose is a journalist, activist and a proud Cape Bretoner. She is well known for her activism on queer, feminist, and students' rights issues, and was one the founders of the Halifax Dyke & Trans March.

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