all adults

Published on March 11th, 2011 | by Amy


The Adults: Dark, Promising, Aimless

In the first hun­dred pages, The Adults has crack­le. It reads like a dark­er ver­sion of Prep or Spe­cial Top­ics in Calami­ty Physics—teenage cru­el­ty, hi­lar­i­ous and scary and painful all at once. But in­stead of the mi­nor heart­breaks and fick­le so­cial os­tra­ciz­ing we get in oth­er re­cent tales of teenager­dom, The Adults, Al­i­son Es­pach’s de­but nov­el, gives us dis­fig­ur­ing vi­o­lence, ex­ploita­tion not by class­mates but by teach­ers, true aban­don­ment by par­ents, lessons of the kind that most of us don’t learn un­til we are old­er.

Like its milder cousins, the book has a re­al voice—at times per­haps over­ly self-aware or pre­cious, but en­ter­tain­ing nonethe­less. Emi­ly Vi­dal, the four­teen-year-old hero­ine, de­scribes her­self as “the kind of per­son who would sit with grief on the couch un­til grief died, who would watch re­runs of game shows while grief guessed the price of a can of green beans. Sev­en­ty-nine cents! Grief was al­ways right. Grief went to the su­per­mar­ket a lot.” Mean­while, adults, she says, “were con­stant­ly au­di­tion­ing, but for what? For the next con­ver­sa­tion, for the next con­ver­sa­tion, for the next con­ver­sa­tion?” She is as­tute, cer­tain­ly, but at times, she stops be­ing be­liev­ably four­teen—even a pre­co­cious four­teen. Still, her at­ti­tude as a young teenag­er gives the book a no­tice­able charm.

And then, it falls off a cliff. Rather than oc­cu­py­ing that small and ter­ri­fy­ing space of high school in its unique­ly dark way, the book goes spi­ral­ing off in­to col­lege and young adult­hood, trail­ing bits of the ear­li­er sto­ry with it, with­out any di­rec­tion, with­out any depth, with­out sto­ry. The bits and pieces are so un­teth­ered that one has the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that the writ­er had ex­pe­ri­ences in her own life that she felt the need to work in­to the nov­el, whether they fit or not. And most of them don’t. There’s an episode in Prague, for in­stance, where the hero­ine, hav­ing grad­u­at­ed from col­lege, is now study­ing for a de­gree in in­te­ri­or de­sign, and vis­its her fa­ther, who has ac­quired an epilep­tic dog. Lat­er we’re back in idyl­lic Con­necti­cut, where the hero­ine’s moth­er has re­mar­ried and land­ed her with a step­sis­ter, al­so an in­te­ri­or de­sign­er. There’s an elab­o­rate wed­ding. There’s a din­ner par­ty where the kitchen catch­es fire. And then, even­tu­al­ly, the book. . . stops.

A gen­er­ous read­er might take the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing The Adults for a mir­ror of life it­self— full of promise at the out­set, and then, some­time in your twen­ties, you re­al­ize that there is no path, no shape to all this pulling you to­ward a goal—but good fic­tion should be able to con­vey its ob­ser­va­tions more art­ful­ly. Save your­self some trou­ble—if you come across this book, rip the first hun­dred pages from the rest, and re­seal the bind­ing. You’ll end up with a book worth read­ing.

Scrib­n­er, Febru­ary, 2011
Hard­cov­er, 320 pages

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