I love good domestic fiction so I enjoyed Emma Straub’s new novel All Adults Here. Straub’s talent is to create highly individual characters, who display the familiar range of anxieties of modern life, toss them into a story and let them have at it. Her writing is full of generosity and humor towards her characters even when they’re behaving not so well, making bad decisions, and opening their mouths before they think. She doesn’t shy away from fraught subjects, like gender identity and adultery. Teens, in particular, learn serious lessons about themselves and the adult world. She manages a fairly large cast of characters in this novel, but in short order Straub takes us inside their thoughts and we’re at ease, watching them all interact.
The novel opens with Astrid, matriarch of the family Strick, still living in the Big House where her three children grew up, in the small Connecticut shore town of Clapham. Astrid is something like Olive Kitteridge, full of opinions, lacking warmth, but not quite as prickly as Olive. Her granddaughter Cecelia has just arrived to live with her for a year after an unpleasant incident at her school in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Astrid’s daughter, Porter, who raises goats and makes cheese, is pregnant with no husband in sight. Other characters present with their own special anxieties and complications.
Straub’s insights are what makes All Adults Here special. She writes about the ups and downs of parenting; one of the parents in the novel says that “most decisions weren’t plans, they were tourniquets, immediate responses to whatever problem was at hand.” Astrid, thinking about how she raised her three children alongside the ups and downs of her own life, muses that “whatever accomplishments she’d ever had, [she] had foisted three human beings on the world.” That word “foisted” is such a great choice! Parents of adult children will understand. Failure, regret, change, and renewal enter all the characters’ lives in the course of the novel and all are changed for better or worse. It’s highly entertaining despite the characters’ angst and I did laugh out loud several times.
I loved Straub’s last novel, Modern Love, set in the trendy Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, not far from where I grew up. It has some of the same characteristics as this novel: the humor; the characters who have to live with the consequences of their bad decisions; and the examination of the fraught personal worlds we live in. All Adult Here is very different and I can’t decide which one I like better. Maybe I don’t have to.
In the acknowledgments at the back of the novel, Straub mentions Eddie Joyce, who wrote Small Mercies, a novel in this same genre that I particularly enjoyed several years ago. I blogged about Small Mercies here. That was Joyce’s first novel and I’ve been waiting ever since for his second. Where are you Eddie? Elizabeth Poliner’s novel As Close to Us as Breathing is another favorite, luminous and wise about families. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, about an extended Indian family living together in a large house in Calcutta is a particularly powerful novel that joins family tragedy with political turmoil. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s the kind of novel that you wish you could re-read for the first time over and over again.