Andrea Bern, the protagonist of Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up, is a single, childless thirty-nine-year old woman. She is a sometime artist and something of a static observer in her own life (she draws the Empire State Building day after day, until a building is erected that blocks her view; that’s the end of her drawing), and she is unsure of precisely what she seeks. Despite being relegated to singles’ tables at weddings and watching her friends build families, she is content with her marital status: “A funny thing happens when you tell a man that you don’t want to get married: they don’t believe you,” she laments. Her singleness is a non-issue; she is uninterested in a book on the subject that friends recommend to her. One way or another, she refuses to engage the sexist double standard of interrogating women’s personal choices, and Attenberg follows suit simply by deeming such a character worthy of attention. Such is the simple feminism of the novel, and – sadly – it is refreshing.
Attenberg employs lucid, unpretentious prose to create a convincing portrait of a woman’s life at a particular stage. All Grown Up is a searingly acute character study. Andrea can be stubborn and selfish. Her life is unglamorous, though she has her pleasures and her appetites, to which the novel devotes attention. She loves food: parts of the novel read like a food memoir. She has sex with men, and these encounters are described candidly, without innuendo or excessive flourish. She confronts mortality when her brother and his wife have a daughter born terminally ill, but she does so quietly, without melodrama. It is refreshingly nuanced and non-trite. This is one of the novel’s best attributes: subtlety.
The novel’s fragmented timeline vivifies Andrea and the world of the novel: much like we might remember in a random order the most formative vignettes of our own lives, we learn about Andrea’s life bit by bit through nonlinear, disjointed scenes (some funny, some painful) that span from her childhood to the present. Piece by piece, we put together the puzzle of who Andrea Bern is.
The Jewishness of the novel, like its feminism, is quiet but persistent. Andrea eats bagels and whitefish salad; she goes to therapy; she attends the funeral for one of her mother’s friends, a Jewish radical activist. But then again, in the twenty-first century, you need hardly be Jewish to participate in such aspects of Jewish culture. Andrea grew up on the Upper West Side, but she grew up poor, with a drug addict father who died of an overdose: she is no mere caricature of a “culturally elite” New York Jew, but rather a complex individual. Jewishness is an aspect but not the defining aspect of Andrea’s identity. But as with the feminism, perhaps the fact that it can exist without fanfare is noteworthy in itself. “I’m technically a Jew,” Andrea tells her therapist, and that about sums up the novel’s Jewishness as well.
It doesn’t feel quite right to say that this melancholy novel was enjoyable so much as that the experience of reading it was engaging. All Grown Up is a rigorous work of fiction. It is tight, intelligent, and effective.