“Her life is architected, elegant and angular, a beauty to behold, and mine is a stew, a juicy, sloppy mess of ingredients and feelings and emotions, too much salt and spice, too much anxiety, always a little dribbling down the front of my shirt. But have you tasted it? Have you tasted it? It’s delicious.”
Jami Attenberg exposes the hilarity and horrors of being a single woman in urban America in “All Grown Up”. Andrea is a single, modern woman whose existential, career, and personal struggles are simultaneously endearing and alarming.
“Maybe I don’t want to get married, maybe I have never once pictured myself in a wedding gown, not one single time in my entire life. ‘All girls want it,’ he says. That’s not true, of course. I’m living proof, right in front of his eyes. But a funny thing happens when you tell a man that you don’t want to get married: they don’t believe you. They think you’re lying to yourself or you’re lying to them or you’re trying to trick them in some way and you end up being made to feel worse just for telling the truth.”
A former aspiring artist, Andrea now works for corporate America, a job she neither loves nor hates. She dates men she neither loves nor hates. She has a broken, hurting family she both loves and hates. Andrea’s relationships and inner struggles are raw and hyperbolic, yet also extremely believable, occasionally heartbreaking, and often hysterical.
“I hold his face in my hands, and we look at each other and don’t speak, and the room closes in on us, I feel it, the world shrinking, and there is just him and me, physically connected, as close to being one as we can be. Gross.”
Andrea embraces the hot mess of life and while no one would accuse her of being truly happy, she is unquestionably alive.
In “All Grown Up”, Jami Attenberg bends time and space in a way I have never before encountered. Chapters are organized with little regard for chronology. Each chapter covers a discrete but not necessarily unique period of time. The image that stuck in my mind throughout this groundbreaking structure was a Gantt Chart. Now, if you aren’t steeped in project management nor are an organizational nerd like me, perhaps Gantt Charts don’t spring into your mind as imagery. But imagine, if you will, a chart in which each chapter is represented by a horizontal line plotting the days or years in which it takes place.
In “All Grown Up” each chapter’s line can start anywhere on the line of time and can overlap time with previous chapters partially, completely, or not at all. A crude chart of the book might look something like this:
Attenberg briefly reintroduces characters and settings in each chapter, as if each were a stand-alone story, though together they work well to progress the plot and to develop the characters. When asked about the novel’s structure, Attenberg refers to the novel as containing several story cycles which “work together structurally to create something bigger. There are a few chapters that operate uniquely. For example the first chapter is my map of the book, and it needs no other partners. But in general all the chapters needed to exist as their own moment in time, and while they are not specifically crafted as short stories, I think they have a similar punch.” The result is extraordinary in its newness, its boundary-breaking, and in its effectiveness.
What could have been confusing, off-putting, or gimicky is none of these. The novel reads the way memories often do, as snapshots in time working together to represent a larger whole. Attenberg’s unique structure, her distinctive voice, and her dark sense of humor make “All Grown Up” an absolute treat. Fans of the show “Fleabag” would love this novel, and vice versa, I am sure. “All Grown Up” is a character novel which never wanders, never slows, and never loosens its grip. Brilliant.
Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a complimentary Advanced Reading Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “All Grown Up” will be released in the United States on March 7, 2017.