Growing Pains in Retrospect

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In her new novel, The Adults, Alison Espach tells the story of one girl carefully stepping over that unbridgeable gap between childhood and adulthood, and nearly falling to pieces in the process.

When I was a kid, everyone else looked like an adult. The world was neatly, immutable divided into two categories of responsibility: grown-up, and not. These groups may also be known as: subjects and rulers; students and teachers; Littles and Bigs. Grown-ups made, and controlled, the universe as I knew it. And I could not ever imagine myself joining their ranks.

The sense of the unbridgeable gap between childhood and adulthood haunts Alison Espach’s debut novel, The Adults. Through her snarky but naïve protagonist, Emily Vidal, Espach gives us the story of one girl carefully stepping over that unbridgeable gap, and nearly falling to pieces in the process. As the novel opens, Emily is fourteen and sulking her way through her father’s fiftieth birthday party, at which she would rather trail Mark Resnick, the lanky maybe-one-day-boyfriend next door, than try to impress the grownups. These grownups, “arriving in bulk, in Black Tie preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence,” may as well be an unknown species for all their odd rituals and incomprehensible ways. Emily watches one of the girls at the party complaining to her parent,

“This is sooo boring, Dad.”

“Go talk to someone,” the curly-haired man said.

“Talking is boring,” the girl said. “All you people do is talk.”

“If you’re looking for more than that in life, Melissa, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s what we do. We stand around and talk.”

Emily will do a fair amount of talking, and quiet neurotic ruminating, especially when she sees her father nuzzling up against Mark’s mother in the adjoining hedge. This affair sets off a series of discoveries during Emily’s adolescence, and on the night she witnesses Mr. Resnick’s horrific front-yard suicide, a new teacher at her school with the nickname “Mr. Basketball” cleans broken glass out of her foot and tells her to breathe deep. This man, her future teacher and lover for many years, could see she was “still a person, connected inside by a network of nerves and blood,” and as Emily makes her way into adulthood, she lets all her self-worth rest on his approval.

For what Emily wants, more than boys or friends or a stable family, is to grow up, and as quickly as possible. Her infatuation speaks to a desire that all teenagers harbor: the desire to be admired and treated as an equal by their most worshipped mentor. Mr. Basketball understands Emily’s bewilderment and finds it charming. “‘It’s all wildly confusing, I know,’ he said. Then I laughed too, like we had some kind of understanding… ” This is a moment that feels acutely teenage—Emily longs for her teacher’s validation, but also for the promise that she will come out of the horrors of her teenage years. She hasn’t yet seen the other side of adulthood, and so she puts her faith in his vision of it, despite all of the mistakes she will make.

The dichotomy between the young and the old, however, only works in fiction if they hold deeply distinct perspectives, and Emily’s voice wavers inconsistently between being deeply knowing and wildly distracted. It’s slightly unclear where Espach intended her protagonist to speak from wisdom gained over many years, or from an ambivalence mulled over in the present-day. Emily lacks the winsome knowingness of Scout Finch, or the hilarious anxiety of Deenie Fenner, and so we don’t know where to place her narrative perspective, in her teenager years or in her adulthood. Even when we can locate her, her perspective seems strangely atemporal—it’s 1997 when she reaches 16, but it may as well have been in Yates and Cheever country, for her conversations all happen face-to-face, never over the web or on the phone. She speaks with an odd nostalgia and glib flippancy, leaving us to ask: does she even miss her childhood? Espach gives her a disdain for the details of her youth, saying “The past was boring. That included funny things we said, things we used to feel, clothes we used to wear.” This is such a reflexively embarrassed voice; we know she’s supposed to be precociously wise, but how can we believe she’s wise if everything she ruminates on feels like it happened twenty years ago? Flip open any page of Karen de Woskin’s Big Girl Small or Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, and you will find immediacy in the voices of the teenage protagonists, an urgency of emotion and knowledge and desperation to express itself. No such energy flows through Emily Vidal. She is almost robotically removed, intellectually distancing herself from even the most pivotal of experiences.

As she moves into adulthood, however, she starts to notice not just what adults do, but what children do. Looking at her little stepsister Laura, the fruit of that affair many years before, she says, “for everyone one of my movements, Laura made four.” She moves to Prague to join her father and his family in her early twenties, and for the first time she starts to revel in the way children play, discover, experience things through fresh eyes. One day Laura and Emily venture out into the snow to play a game, and Laura’s intricate rules tumble breathlessly forth:

“Once you die more than three, no, four times, you are officially dead for ever. Anyway, so, the water is rising over the bridge, and it’s getting in my ears, and I hate that, because it could lead to a forever infection, and at the last second, you pull me out of the river!”

I told her I was having difficulty imaging the landscape…

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll play by myself. You are like the worst fake dead adult ever.”

Is this the moment where Emily becomes an adult? The moment where imagination fails her? Or is it that she has stopped wanting to pretend, to project herself into a different future? Espach’s narrative, however inconsistent in its teenage years, does get one thing painfully right. In Emily’s evolution, Espach captures that moment in adulthood where one realizes one cannot ever go back into the breathless excitement and energy of childhood. As her relationship with Mr. Basketball finally starts to break down, Emily sees how her actions have stolen something much bigger than her ability to be surprised —they have stolen her ability to live in the moment.

Emily is brought right back to her first love, the kiss that she couldn’t bring herself to ask for, or simply to take. She longs for that heart-pounding fear, for the sense of something precious being at stake. When she is finally sharing her thoughts on what have happened, she realizes how far she has come from the person she wanted to be. “Talking about it made us feel like people different from who we were, the kind of people who had failed, the kind of people whom other people rolled their eyes at.” Making conversation, standing around for hours, and talking—she has reached adulthood at last.

Jessica Freeman-Slade is a writer who reviews and blogs on book culture at The [TK] Review, and has written reviews for The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She works as an editor at Random House and lives in Morningside Heights. More from this author →