'All Grown Up' Tedious and Familiar

2 Stars

All Grown Up cover
In the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s novel “All Grown Up,” a passage describes the protagonist’s daily artistic ritual: having dropped out of art school, she sits in her apartment every morning and draws her view of the Empire State Building. “Art feels safe for you again,” the narrator explains, “even though you know you are not getting any better at it, that the work you are making could be sold to tourists only on a sidewalk outside of Central Park.” It is appropriate that the first chapter is told entirely in second person. Though it is revealed later on that the protagonist is a woman named Andrea Bern, she may as well be anyone, any “you,” with nothing but a few fill-in-the-blank details to bring her (barely) to life. In many ways, the novel itself very closely resembles the sketches drawn by its protagonist. The voice and overall narrative of “All Grown Up” are practically indistinguishable from those of countless other books (and blogs, and television shows, and any other media featuring existentially dissatisfied white women), and Andrea’s supposed awareness of her and her story’s mediocrity lends only a stilted self-consciousness to the novel.

The book’s dust jacket summary implies that Andrea will be pulled from her slump: “When Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters.” But even after little Sigrid, the aforementioned niece, comes into the world with a broken brain and a slow heart, Andrea is withdrawn, self-destructive, useless. The prose, quite accordingly, remains tiresome, insufficient yet overwrought: “I’m the sick baby, I think. Me. Who will hold me?” Certainly not anyone who has read this book. Perhaps in small doses it would have been effective to make the reader feel Andrea’s middle-aged malaise wafting from each sentence. But reading page after page of Andrea’s circuitous self-loathing internal monologue is beyond exhausting. “All Grown Up” goes beyond confessional writing; it reads like a letter to a psychotherapist.

Very little of this novel is told in scene; most of it is written in tightly-compacted summary interspersed with overly explicit explanations of Andrea’s thoughts and feelings. There is little room for the reader to make his or her own inferences or even enjoy the story without being told exactly what is happening. And it is always the same Big Issues that Andrea moans incessantly about in a way that is self-flagellatory or masturbatory or both. (Bad hookups! Boring job! Mortality! Aging!) Andrea tells story after story, providing extra information but no additional nuance to her issues. It’s all very repetitive. Her attempts to delve into issues larger than herself, such as race, are forced and mishandled. For instance, after describing how her multiracial friend Indigo dislikes being called “exotic,” Andrea makes it clear that she sees Indigo as little more than a stock character, a beautiful brown-skinned bohemian married to a rich white man; Andrea’s discussions of having sex with her black friend are similarly bungled. In a movie adaptation (which hopefully will never be made), Andrea could easily be played by Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, or any other actress who is accustomed to portraying insufferable women with little to no self-awareness.

The only parts of the novel that seem truly alive (and aren’t torturous to read) are those in which Andrea starts conveying her emotions through action and description rather than reporting them outright—in other words, when she begins showing instead of telling. The two best chapters of the novel are “The Dinner Party,” in which Andrea recounts the rent-raising dinner parties her mother held after her father’s fatal overdose, and “All Grown Up,” in which she describes following her father to a drug den when she was thirteen. Perhaps part of the appeal of these chapters is that they are stories of Andrea’s life as a teenager: that is, before she becomes the painfully flat caricature of a disaffected white woman who rambles and flails throughout most of the book. While these chapters may have been intended to help the reader understand why Andrea turned out the way she did, they are more likely to make the reader wish the entire novel were about young Andrea.

“You are not not talented” is what Andrea tells herself while she draws sketch after sketch of the Empire State Building. And similarly, “All Grown Up” isn’t an unequivocally badly written book. But it’s a portrait of womanhood that has already been done innumerable times, and not a particularly interesting or enjoyable portrait at that.