Genre-bending novel raises questions

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January 9, 2015

Adult Onset

By Ann-Marie MacDonald

Knopff Canada, 

384 pages, $32


Reviewed by Julia Leggett

Adult Onset, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest book, is genre bending. A sort of fictional autobiography, the novel explores a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, a part Canadian-part Lebanese, lesbian woman who spent her early years on a military base in Germany and is now a writer with two children living in Toronto with her theatre-director partner.  As shrewd readers will know, Ann-Marie MacDonald was also born in Germany to a Lebanese mother and Canadian father in the military. She is also a lesbian writer with two children who lives in Toronto with her theatre-director partner, Alisa Palmer.

At the start of the novel, Mary Rose receives a positive and loving email from her father about the It Gets Better video, a message of hope and resilience for LGBT youth. Yet years before, when Mary Rose came out to her parents, she was met with their shame, disbelief and vitriol. Through the course of this ordinary week — a week so dense with the minutiae of middle class urban parenthood (Ikea furniture, strollers, yoga mats, toddler tantrums, mild sleep deprivation, non-chemical cleaners, Feminism, Google as a conductor for enlightenment, nannies, organic food, mothering angst and a subplot involving the incompetence of Canada Post) that I often felt smothered — it becomes clear that Mary Rose, despite her efforts to push her feelings aside, is still under the thrall of her complicated childhood. Her father’s email is the tipping point, and the past collides forcefully with the present. Little fault lines appear in her parenting and her relationship, out of which her rage seeps, threatening to poison her carefully constructed world.

All this too has its mirror in MacDonald’s real life. In her 2014 pride speech, MacDonald discussed the lingering effects of her rage over her parents’ initial failure to respect her coming out and how that stifled rage turned towards her partner and — almost  — her children. Curiously, the novel does not tackle the process her parents went through on their journey to acceptance.

I suspect a great deal of fiction is thinly veiled autobiography but Adult Onset deliberately alerts the reader to this fact, creating a curious doubling effect for me. I was jolted from the text. As I read, I was always asking, “Is this part real? Is this part real?” Extracts of Mary Rose’s own YA novel ended each chapter but, at the mid point of the book, tapered off unfinished. The extracts did not deepen the story but simply seemed like another unnecessary nod to the meta nature of this work. Perhaps for MacDonald, the fictionalizing of her life created distance, and enabled her to cleanly excavate meaning. While art often lets us get at the truth in a way that the bone-dry facts do not, and I am sucker for pushing the boundaries of any genre, in this case, as her reader, I did wonder if straight forward memoir might have been a better vessel for this story. And yet, in this slow moving hybrid of fact and fiction, MacDonald can still be droll, moving and astute as she painstakingly peels back the layers to show us what it takes to truly release the past.

Julia Leggett is a Victoria-based writer. Her debut short fiction collection, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, is available from Mother Tongue Publishing.


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