Adult Onset

Mother load

ADULT ONSET by Ann-Marie MacDonald (Knopf), 384 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNNN

Ann-Marie MacDonald has taken a big risk with Adult Onset, a major departure from her two previous bestsellers, one of them the Oprah-approved Fall On Your Knees.

This novel doesn’t qualify as epic and it doesn’t take historical detail to the max. Adult Onset is raw, totally contemporary and deeply personal. It’s an intimate account of how a Toronto parent of two small children – she feels like a single mother while her partner is temporarily plying her stagecraft in Calgary – starts losing her battle with rage.

The story begins when commercially successful novelist-turned-housewife Mary Ruth receives an email from her father finally expressing his all-out acceptance of her lesbian relationship. Her attempt to write a response induces a flood of memories about her childhood, her ambivalent father, her depressed mother and the chronic pain Mary Ruth’s always had in her arm.

Interspersed with these recollections are excruciatingly detailed accounts of Mary Ruth’s current tedious life, the small errands that are supposed to qualify as major events, the neighbourhood parents she can’t relate to, the fans she encounters who wonder when they’ll see the next book – until her uncooperative child turns into the enemy. The tension deepens the more it seems possible that Mary Ruth might hurt her.

MacDonald revels in the contradictions Mary Ruth struggles with: her father loved her boyishness and loathed her lesbianism she’s an accomplished writer/artist now consigned to dreary routines on paper she’s hugely lucky but she feels only debilitating anxiety. She’s also plainly haunted by an early trauma she can’t face.

MacDonald stumbles when she tries to make Mary Ruth too clever – her penchant for correct grammar, for example, gets irritating. But she explores the question of parental abuse and its origins with uncommon courage.

And the whole thing has palpable authenticity.

I interview MacDonald onstage October 31, 7 pm, at the Fleck Dance Theatre.

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