Published on March 11th, 2011 | by Amy0
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