Sunday, June 21, 2015

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

A signed copy of Ann-Marie MacDonald's Adult Onset had been sitting unread on my bookshelf since the Writers Fest in Vancouver last October. (Festival highlights here.) I was delighted by the initial 20 pages, immediately after purchasing. And MacDonald was a fantastic speaker at the festival, where she said, "Everything I write is about truth coming out." Since then, however, other books have managed to come between me and Adult Onset. A guaranteed method to get back into it was to put it on the roster for my book club.

At our discussion last week, everyone loved it. We talked about it for so much longer than we usually do that we didn't even have time at the end for our customary round-the-circle sharing of other books we've been reading. Adult Onset is one of my very favourite reads so far this year. Why ever did I wait so long?

It's about a contemporary married lesbian couple. Hilary is away, working on a play in Calgary. Mary Rose - aka MR, aka Mister - is a writer at home in Toronto with their two young children. The challenges inherent in parenting a spirited two-year-old daughter dredge up painful episodes from MR's childhood and early adulthood. Meanwhile, MR's elderly parents are starting to lose their memories.

The novel is packed with cultural landmarks. For example, MR's father sends her an email to congratulate her contribution to the "It Gets Better" online video project in support of queer youth. Readers are treated to MR's internal monologue, presented in close third-person. As she composes a reply, "icebergs are evaporating and falling as rain on her February garden, where a water-boarded tulip has foolishly put its head up - are things getting better or worse?"

Having witnessed my own tulips buried under late snow, the reference to water-boarding made me smile. Immediately afterwards, it made me uncomfortable. Water-boarding is a serious issue: torture that leaves no visible mark. It isn't something to joke about. But my discomfort turned out to be misplaced; MacDonald knows exactly what she is doing. What seemed like an image tossed off for effect was in fact a portent. The large tulip on the back cover of the dust jacket should also have been a clue. MR is dealing with traumatic events, long buried, that have left no outward signs.

Aspects of the relationship between MR and her parents are heartbreaking, yet the part that made me weep is secondary to the main plot. (This isn't a spoiler, even though it is near the end.) It's when MR thanks her friend Gigi for coming when she needed help. Gigi tells her: "We never thought we'd be able to get married. We thought we were out in the cold, so we made the cold into a party, but cold is cold and family is family and you guys are mine."

I sobbed and sobbed, because MacDonald reminded me of how it used to be, back before gays and lesbians had human rights protection in Alberta. I still feel the hurt from when we were shut outside of mainstream Canadian society. When I was interviewed for the Edmonton Queer History Project, one of the things that surprised me was getting choked up about the Delwin Vriend case. There are a number of video clips from this history project available online here

Adult Onset is funny and devastating and true. It made me feel so much. It has surpassed Fall on Your Knees in my heart, which is saying a lot, because MacDonald's first novel is also dear to me.

No comments: