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With Adult Onset, Ann-Marie MacDonald has yet again delivered a masterpiece

Readers are left to speculate how autobiographical Ann-Marie MacDonald’s new novel is.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Title
Adult Onset
Author
Ann-Marie MacDonald
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
384 pages
Price
$32
Year
2014

If I call a book gothic, it evokes castles, cliffs, and counts. It does not conjure up images of the sort of red-brick house in which most of Ann-Marie MacDonald's new novel, Adult Onset, takes place. She attempted a similar feat with her previous novels. Call it domestic gothic: the earthy folksiness of Cape Breton in Fall On Your Knees concealed abuse, while the straight-lacedness and order of Air Force bases in The Way the Crow Flies was underwritten by murder.

In Adult Onset, MacDonald tracks what looks like a well-do-to creative-class person who is wrestling with a dark force, except in this case the menace is largely confined to the interior, a matter of memory and psychology. And she has again delivered a masterpiece.

Because it comes at a crossroad, the subject of MacDonald's novel feels both tired and urgent. We live in a time when, increasingly, there are duelling archetypes of domestic life. On the one hand there is a certain section of the advertising industry still selling the idea of the happy housewife. On the other, while it is also still relatively unspeakable to admit to ambivalence, let alone anger, about the role of motherhood, there is increasing comfort, especially in literary fiction, at portraying stories of domesticity that position it as something other than the apex of a life.

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The narrator of MacDonald's novel is Mary Rose MacKinnon, a woman who in midlife settled down with a new partner and promptly had two children. Mary Rose decided she'd also become a stay-at-home mother, putting her career as a novelist on hold. But by the time we first encounter her, when the children are two and five, Mary Rose is unraveling as a sweater does when its hem is pulled too many times.

Mary Rose's crisis is set off by a sudden inability to articulate herself. Her father has written her after watching the "It Gets Better" videos with pride. He tells her in his subject line that he is glad "Some things really do get batter…" (The misspelling is his.) His message is sunny and congratulatory and betrays nothing about the fact that when Mary Rose came out to her parents some 20 years before, they were not supportive.

Half by accident, Mary Rose sends back an e-mail that reads simply:

Dear Dad, I

The rest of the book is an accelerating cry, with the pace and tone of a person long shut up in some kind of castle tower finally being heard. Maybe most of us are a bit gothic about our childhoods, in that way. It is only recently, though, that it has become kosher to express it.

The trend owes something to the second wave of feminism of course, to the gloriously funny-angry novels of the 1970s and 1980s like Diary of a Mad Housewife and Heartburn. There, women were just beginning to break out of the insistence that they get married (or be heterosexual, which at the time was the same thing) and they had the polemical certainty of someone liberated from obvious constraint. Even now the popularity of something like Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It contains within it the notion that one day liberation will come. Generally, the woman in question realizes that She Does It Just Fine.

But literary fiction has in general preferred the ambivalent to the polemic. This is especially true when it comes to a novel which focuses on women in the home. You see seeds of mad housewives, after all, in most of Alice Munro's heroines. But their conflicted feelings are muted, unspeakable, buried but never gone. Repression is the accepted solution, the epiphanies small and partial if they come at all.

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Newer novels have gotten louder regarding the frustrations, creative and familiar, of their heroines. Both Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs and Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation come to mind as recent analogues. Their intelligent narrators are full of observational wit and articulate complaints about the situation of midlife women and family.

The peculiar loneliness of the stay-at-home parent is hard for Mary Rose because it pulls her back into a clouded past. Mary Rose's own mother was difficult and depressive. And the traces of this left behind leave Mary Rose anxious and lost herself. There are anchors in her world – her supportive partner Hilary, her certainty of her children – but they don't keep her from getting caught in upswells of anger.

For example, a night at home can look like this:

The only way to get unfurious would be to have a huge fight with Hilary, during which Hil would unleash her victimy wrath before becoming rehumanized in Mary Rose's eyes by crying, after which she would reassuringly resume her pedestal by being coldly critical of Mary Rose who would silently batter her own head and wind up rocking in the fetal position on the guest room bed so as not to wake the children while she waited for the corrosive tide of neurochemicals to retreat, repenting of everything, most fervently of the fact that she had even been born.

I'd wager that for a lot of people, sensitive people, this sort of monster-at-the-end-of-your-brain lurks at the edge of your life. There are, perhaps, people of idyllic childhoods and strong constitutions who manage to evade this sort of thing in midlife. But they are the exceptions, and Mary Roses the rule.

Perhaps I am making Adult Onset sound confessional in tone. I would not call that a flaw, but rather a kind of signal. Earlier this year, in a column for this newspaper, MacDonald recounted an incident similar to the e-mail Mary Rose receives between herself and her own parents. At least, she tells of getting a slightly different version of the same e-mail, but she does not record her own reply. That is just one of a few signals of an autobiographical element in the book. There is the assonance of the names – Ann-Marie MacDonald, Mary Rose MacKinnon – and the same creative-career background. Not to mention also the same Lebanese heritage.

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We live in a time where authors swing to two extremes when accused of being autobiographical. You have the Sheila Heti types, who more or less admit it openly, and then you have other writers who find it almost insulting, some kind of slur on their powers of invention. And something about Adult Onset resists a clear attachment to either pole. Mary Rose herself says more than once that she sees a sort of regurgitation of her own childhood in the books she's written; it is hard not to read that as a metafictional cue from MacDonald. Indeed if you've read MacDonald's other books you will find threads of them, almost origin stories, in Adult Onset.

But then there is clear distance, too, between narrator and author. Adult Onset is a book that explicitly tells you that you can't escape your past by sheer act of will. You can't simply answer the e-mail with a fiction about how happy you are to hear this from a father. Even if your focus is on getting through a single day, you do it moving through a sort of fog of memories. The act of getting beyond them is one of self-construction. Which is not so very much unlike building as convincing a protagonist as Mary Rose.

Michelle Dean is a senior writer at Gawker and at work on a book about female intellectuals. Follow her on Twitter @michelledean

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