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Archive for the ‘Alison Espach’ Category

I have so many book reviews to catch up on, going back to early February, and I know I should be disciplined and start with the oldest ones so that they get done while I still have some however vague memories of the books but…I don’t want to.  Instead, I want to talk about The Adults by Alison Espach which I picked up last Thursday and could not put down until I’d turned the last page. 

As the novel begins, Emily Vidal is fourteen years old, exchanging pointedly wry observations with Mark, her next door neighbour and adolescent love interest, at her father’s backyard 50th birthday party.  Right from the beginning, Espach perfectly captures the frenetic speech and thought patterns of the intelligent, quick-witted, late-Twentieth Century teen in a way that should have most other authors of coming of age stories seething with jealousy.  It’s not that Emily sees or understands everything, it’s just that everything she does see is so perfectly observed, particularly the niceties of suburban society.  The entire party set piece that opens the novel is eerily perfect, recalling dozens of neighbours and neighbourhood parties from my own youth:

My mother and Mrs. Resnick had not spoken in months for no other reason that they were neighbours who did not realize they had not spoken in months. (p. 5)

In very short order, Emily’s parents announce they are getting a divorce and that her father is moving to Prague, Emily discovers her father has been having an affair with Mrs. Resnick (their next door neighbour and the mother of Mark), Mr. Resnick kills himself in his backyard with Emily as the only witness, and Mrs. Resnick reveals that she is pregnant with Emily’s half-sibling.  A dizzying amount of drama and yet it never tilts into melodrama, though perhaps a comedy as Emily’s asides and observations displaying a cutting wit even as all of her relationships are falling apart.  Her insights into parental tensions are particularly resonant:

Our fathers were the ones who were constantly leaving us, but they were also the men who would always love us, despite our broken conversation and frizzy hair…Fathers were men who were just trying to understand, while mothers were women who were trying to change us. (p. 51)

And in the midst of all this chaos, something important begins.  As she loses her father to Europe and her mother to a haze of alcohol and depression, fifteen-year old Emily strikes up an intoxicating and illicit relationship with her twenty-four year old English teacher, known among his adoring female students as ‘Mr. Basketball’, a love affair that will stretch well into her twenties and form the emotional fulcrum for the larger tale of Emily’s coming of age.

Writing about relationships between teachers and students while retaining the reader’s sympathies for each character is impossible.  But there is no doubt in Emily’s mind as to what she wants from him when their relationship begins: the feelings are mutual and intense and draw them back together, year after year, until Emily is older even than Mr. Basketball was when they first met.  He is never truly vilified and their relationship is not romanticized, though there is certainly an erotic tension throughout.  But the way Emily sees him changes as she grows older, as they encounter one another at different life stages, and the reader’s views change accordingly.  They love one another, passionately but destructively.  Their relationship is a reminder of weakness and of mistakes, of vulnerability and selfishness.  It’s all very dark and very, very weird but kind of wonderful because of that.  This is not a love story where you want a happy ending.

The novel skips large passages of time, completely bypassing Emily’s college years when she studied, of all things, interior decorating and design.  It seems an odd choice for a character so introspective and thoughtful, only foreshadowed by an effort in high school to pull her mother out of her depression by redecorating the living room.  That said, it’s very nice to have an urban female, twenty-something character who doesn’t have a staple Young-Modern-Unthreatening-Because-I-Will-Never-Make-More-Than-My-Hero-WomanTM career (writer, PR girl, artistically-inclined entrepreneur, etc).  The middle section, chronologically, takes place in Prague when Emily is twenty-two – a surreal, fantastical setting for a relatively strange period of Emily’s life.  I did, predictably, adore all of the Czech details.  There are people drinking Krušovice and Becherovka (though they seem to be doing shots of the latter at a bar which seems odd as it is something that everyone I know views more as a medicinal tonic than beverage of choice) and there are so many Czech phrases dropped that it almost felt like I was at a family reunion. 

Funny (hilarious even), intelligent, and generally entertaining, I read this in one afternoon, unable to put it down when each page seemed to include a universal insight that spoke directly to me.  This is what growing up feels like, all the pain and embarrassment, the euphoria and confusion, eloquently distilled in paper and ink.  An unexpected and wonderful debut novel.

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