Ann-Marie MacDonald's first two novels, the critically acclaimed and bestselling Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, together clock in at more than 1,300 pages. Although the description is overused, they are epic novels – one a multigenerational family saga, the other a sweeping coming-of-age story that recalls one of Canada's most notorious miscarriages of justice. Both finalists for the Giller Prize, they helped establish MacDonald, previously known as an actor and playwright, as one of the most important novelists working in Canada today.
When she began contemplating her third novel, MacDonald, by then a mother of two, imagined something more intimate in scope, something she could write in the stolen moments of the day, something, she says, "manageable and light and simple."
"Parenthood set the parameters for this novel," says MacDonald, 55, sitting outside a Toronto café on a recent morning. "I thought, 'I'm going to do something which I can do at the kitchen table. Which I can carry in my head. Which doesn't require me to go anywhere and do any big-deal research.'"
And then she wrote Adult Onset.
"I didn't count on how difficult it would be."
Adult Onset, which arrived in bookstores this week, is a novel about difficulties, especially those between parents and their children. It's a book about childhood trauma, the trappings of parenthood – emphasis on trap – and the prank that is middle age, when you wake up one morning and realize the end is closer than the beginning. It is not a horror novel, but I'm a 33-year-old man with no kids, and Adult Onset scared the hell out of me.
It is, says MacDonald, about "the dark undercurrents of ordinary days." Or in this case, a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, the 48-year-old author of a pair of young adult novels that have found success. As the novel opens, Mary Rose has traded in her pen for parenthood, or at least that's what she tells herself is the reason the YA trilogy is still one book short. Her wife is out of town, leaving Mary Rose in charge of Matthew, 5, and Maggie, 2. To complicate matters, Mary Rose is dealing with what appears to be her mother's encroaching dementia, a manic-depressive brother, readers who are increasingly impatient for her next book, and the emotional baggage she's still carrying around from a transient – and quite likely abusive – childhood.
Though the novel takes place over seven days, in essence Mary Rose relives the same day over and over again (think Groundhog Day), an endless cycle of tantrums and play dates, afternoon naps and sleepless nights. It is the narrative of the perpetually tired, the novel often employing a hazy, dreamlike quality that calls to mind the parent who is up at 3 and then 5 a.m. to comfort a screaming toddler, and again at 7 to make breakfast.
"At a very prosaic level – and I suppose a lot of people will relate – I did have to write it in a cognitive condition of chronic sleep-deprivation because of being a parent," MacDonald says.
"I was trying to evoke that cognitive challenge, and stress and terror. Like, 'Am I losing my mind, really, or am I just raising toddlers?' So to evoke that, when the memory of it was so recent and the work of it was still quite present, and, perversely, probably because I like to do hard things, I thought I'm going to structure something that is all about your structure disintegrating. I'm going to try and craft an experience for the reader which is all about somebody who's cognition seems to be fragmenting."
As her structure disintegrates, Mary Rose grows closer to a breaking point, and the reader begins to fear it will involve her harming her children or herself. (She has a self-diagnosed rage problem, evidenced by the dent in the refrigerator door.) This makes Adult Onset a book to be avoided by, or perhaps should be required reading for, expectant parents. Who knew attempting to put boots on a two-year-old girl could drive a parent to madness?
"I did want to show the little pressures," MacDonald says. "What is it that's going to send you over the edge when you didn't even know you're at the edge? How important is it to know how close to the edge you are? And in order to do that, you have to look within. And sometimes looking within threatens to send you over the edge."
With the publication of Adult Onset, MacDonald has completed a trilogy that shows her life "in a parallel world." All three novels draw heavily on her biography, but Adult Onset might be the closest MacDonald comes to writing a memoir. The similarities (the protagonist's name, her wife's occupation, her childhood) are difficult to ignore. She knows, considering the fractious relationship her protagonist shares with her mother, that her own parents – whom, like Mary Rose's, recently decamped to Victoria – might be subjected to uncomfortable questions in the coming months.
"Pretty early on, when I understood what the story was that wanted to come out and be transformed and become a book, and I understood how close to the bone that was going to be, I did speak to them, and I let them know what I was doing. I said, 'I'm working with what I have – that's what I have to do. That's my job.' And my father said, 'You do it better than anyone.'"
She laughs. "It was really very generous, and also very bittersweet, because I did go through a lot of things with my parents, and my mother was often the more vocal one. And on my recent visit, before they moved, I put the book in my mother's hands – I had inscribed it to them – and I said, 'There's a character who is a really funny, scary, beloved character in this book. And people are going to read this book and sometimes they are going to say, 'Is that you?' And here's what you can say: 'I'm in everything my daughter writes.' And that will be the truth.'"