All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017; 197 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
With everyone in their neat corners and confined to their cultural bubbles these days, Jami Attenberg reveals a character bucking the system and paying for it dearly in her latest novel, All Grown Up. Attenberg’s Andrea Bern starts as the creative that so many non-creatives don’t entirely understand, from her mother to her brother and sister-in-law, and when she is “unsupervised,” in a sense, by her family and friends then she struggles with that creative side, from the smell paint supplies trigger in her to constant and repetitive sketching of New York landmarks before they disappear in the ever-changing force of gentrification on the skyline. She tries to fit in and “behave” so that there’s no risk of her sliding back into the questionable life choices that artists seem prone to, like...yearning to create.
Attenberg’s deft application of this yearning in the face of a “practical” world, a world forced to be somber in the face of overdoses and terminal illness and divorce, creates a character in Andrea of permanence in what would otherwise be described as an impermanent character. Attenberg gives us Andrea in a collection of chapters that are almost short stories and almost chapters; they defy conventional fictional definition, and one might think of them best as the literary equivalent of strings of Tibetan banners, varying in color and uniform in message. Each chapter is Andrea’s homage to her journey into trying to be a more palatable human to the world around her. Her voice holds poignancy but not enough of a handful to force the reader underwater in the sadness of loss as it comes to Andrea and other characters; Attenberg presents us with enough humor to allow us to rise to the surface for air. Yet, the humor refuses to be a cheap diversion; it grabs the reader by the lapels and stands one up with better posture to embrace whatever is next in the journey. Andrea is acclimating, and she is learning to be a comforter in a world of people who see themselves as more grown up than her, and in the progression of acclimating and learning this new community skill she vents a little pressure through wit:
“Girl, where you at,” he texts me whenever he likes. And sometimes I’m at work and sometimes...I am sitting on a park bench in the sunshine reading the paper and sometimes I am at home and it is a Sunday night and I am drinking a bottle of wine by myself, alone but not lonely, but definitely alone. And wherever I am, I text him back right away. Because I want him to know. Where I am at.
In this wonderful balance of humor and real struggle, Attenberg avoids manipulating the reader and instead seems to provide some sort of awkward mentor for a world of closeted creatives and “practical,” realistic people who don’t see themselves as creative and still lend their own art.
With All Grown Up, I read Attenberg for the first time, which is a blessing (a wonderful first impression) and could also be seen as a handicap, since varying sources have demanded that The Middlesteins was Attenberg’s masterpiece. Still, if nothing else can be learned from All Grown Up, then the lesson is this: we don’t have to complete life in conventional order. All Grown Up is a landscape relief of the single life, and an emotional relief from the judgment of the single life, sorted and unsorted, and largely a group effort, in spite of solitary appearance.