All Grown Up

  • Review
By – September 27, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Reads:

Miran­da Coop­er is a NYC-based writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. Her lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, essays, and trans­la­tions of Yid­dish fic­tion and poet­ry have appeared in a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Jew­ish Cur­rents, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Ange­les Review, Pakn Treger, and more. In 2019, she was named an Emerg­ing Crit­ic by the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. She is also an edi­tor at In geveb: A Jour­nal of Yid­dish Stud­ies.

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