I recently picked up The Adults, the debut novel by (my Fort Greene neighbor) Alison Espach. I won’t bother with the preamble, because my review ran rather long. For variant perspectives on the book, check out the two book reviews that were published in The New York Times and New York Times Book Review just last week:
“Coming of Age with a Quick Wit and a Sharp Eye” by Janet Maslin.
“Growing Up Fast” by Alex Kuczynski
My own (informal) review is below.
I heard about Allison Espach’s debut novel, The Adults because, as a resident of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Brooklyn herself, she was going to be reading at my local bookstore. Her novel–and its heroine, the disenchanted fourteen-year-old Emily Vidal–seem to promise a fresh take on that oh-so-recurrent plotline: Rich Girl from Connecticut Isn’t Buying It and Rebels. So I went down to the bookstore and grabbed a copy off the shelf, just to give the first page a test-read, of sorts. And within several paragraphs, I was sold:
“They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.
My father’s fiftieth birthday party had begun.
It’s true that I was expecting something. I was just fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of my getup…but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.
The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, ‘Hello.’
‘Welcome to our lawn,’ I said back, with a goofy grin, and none of them looked me in the eye because it was rude or something.”
It’s a good start, right? To me, the kind of start that promises crisp prose and creative dialog, and a young character who, in typical bildungsroman fashion, is going to learn that society–and the adults who live in it–haven’t figured everything out, and are (as she already thinks) frauds and just muddling around themselves, but she can still find an acceptable place for herself–either in or out of this world, as she chooses.
For awhile the book holds to this preliminary promise: Emily is told right before the party that her parents are getting divorced and her father is moving to Prague for his job. This is delivered, again, with great aplomb: “‘Your father and I are getting a divorce,’ my mother had shouted at my back that morning as I went upstairs to bathe for the party. My mother believed that…bad news felt better when it came at you fast, from behind, like a bullet.”
But if that piece of news doesn’t upset Emily’s world enough, her father is discovered to have been sleeping with the next door neighbor. And then the next door neighbor’s ailing husband kills himself–while Emily watches, from afar–and then the next door neighbor ends up being pregnant, with Emily’s half-sister.
This all happens within the 75 or so pages, and is, I think, an extreme overloading of Dramatic Plot Elements. One–maybe two–of these elements can start a book, can be the genesis of a character’s growth and development. More, and it sort of becomes like watching a soap opera, and the elemental punch of all of these emotional events diminishes until the author really starts losing credibility.
But Espach doesn’t stop here, she keeps piling things on. She creates a few semi-horrific scenes exemplifying the cruelty of high school students (as if we forgot), such as an attempted nose job in an unattended science class on a universally mocked and hated teen girl. And then, Emily–at 15 now–begins a sexual affair with her 26-year-old English teacher. This affair will be recreated throughout the novel, at four year increments, as Emily gets older. And while she seems to recognize that their ‘relationship’ constitutes statutory rape, she romanticizes this man throughout it all and continues to be manipulated by him well into her late 20s in a rather disturbing fashion. And we’re not dealing with a psychological masterpiece on par with Lolita here, so really–it’s just kind of ridiculous. She introduces the teacher to her father in her mid-twenties as her boyfriend, and when the father recognizes him as a teacher from her high school, the whole thing merits some tears, but really gets shrugged off rather quickly.
All of this is unfortunate, because one can easily see that Espach has talent. She has a great way of compressing and mixing chronology–allowing Emily to drift into memories of the past while going through something in the present, or pausing in the middle of a present event to fast forward into a character’s future. And she has a real sense for teenage characters–their speaking patterns, their simultaneous fascination and horror with sex, their vulnerability and the ease with which they are frequently written off or ignored by adults. As a great example of both, look at the Halloween-in-Spring dance scene: Emily dresses like a “super-hot kitten” and another girl as a “slutty banana.” One of their friends is taken to the hospital for drinking too much vermouth before the dance, but Espach assures us mid-scene that her life will go on and still be rich despite this troubling episode:
“An ambulance was sent for Martha, who would eventually be fine, who would never drink that much vermouth again. She would become the president of the Spanish Club and get into the University of Rochester, where she would lose her virginity to a thirty-year-old from Cork, Ireland.”
In the end, however, everything comes full circle, and this is the most irritating thing of all. The book begins at a party, and ends at a party (of sorts) in the same house in Greenwich. Nothing much seems to have changed. Which just makes the whole reading experience that much more exhausting.