An amusing, observant novel
Jenny McLaine’s life is falling apart. Her friendships are flagging. Her body has failed her. She’s just lost her column at The Foof because she isn’t the fierce voice new feminism needs. Her ex has gotten together with another woman. And worst of all: Jenny’s mother is about to move in. Having left home at eighteen to remake herself as a self-sufficient millennial, Jenny is now in her thirties and nothing is as she thought it would be. Least of all adulthood.
Told in live-wire prose, texts, emails, script dialogue, and social media messages, Grown Ups is a neurotic dramedy of 21st-century manners for the digital age. It reckons with what it means to exist in a woman’s body: to sing and dance and work and mother and sparkle and equalize and not complain and be beautiful and love your imperfections and stay strong and show your vulnerability and bake and box…
But, despite our impossible expectations of women, Emma Jane Unsworth never lets Jenny off the hook. Jenny’s life is falling apart at her own hands and whether or not she has help from her mother or her friends, Jenny is the only one who will be able to pick up the pieces and learn how to, more or less, grow up. Or will she?
This novel received a good deal of buzz before it was released. Pitched in part as being akin to Fleabag, it promised to be a funny, honest and maybe painful look at modern life. As it turns out, it is. I quite enjoyed this.
That enjoyment was only in part because of the main character, Jenny. In many ways, I preferred other characters in the novel, and I have a feeling that’s intentional. She is kind of awful for a lot of the novel: she is the epitome of the social media-obsessed, narcissist that, I have no doubt, everyone knows. She spends ages crafting and strategizing the most insignificant aspects of a social media post. She is addicted to her cellphone, sometimes in the extreme.
“Okay,” he said. “We have a problem.”
I finished my comment, a simple, single red heart emoji — the classic choice; just… enough — clicked the phone to sleep, and looked at him.
Art said: “You are on that thing when we eat, you are on it when we watch TV, you are on it when we go for a walk, and now you are on it when we are having sex.”
“It was a slow bit!”
“It was sex, Jenny. Not a film.”
She assumes that her friends and acquaintances only exist to listen to her woes and angst. Eventually, they call her on it, but for quite some time we see her blithely ricocheting through life and love. Only slowly do we learn of a traumatic event of her past, which certainly helps explain a little bit of her character but, to me, not enough. She’s difficult with everyone. Including her extremely endearing mother (who has some of the best lines in the novel). Jenny’s relationship and breakup with Art is woven throughout the novel, as we sometimes drop back into the past. He is in so many ways, the worst. His self-involvement is different to Jenny’s, but it is also timeless: his like has existed since the beginning of humanity.
I think the comparison with Fleabag is quite apt, but I didn’t click with Jenny as easily or quickly as I did with the eponymous protagonist of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s magnificent TV show. Jenny has very few redeeming features and qualities. She is an anti-hero, in many ways, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I clicked far more with many of the supporting cast — her mother, who I’ve mentioned, and also her various friends who struggle to balance their affection for her with her obliviousness. As the novel develops, however, they start to exert influence over Jenny in small, positive ways.
Unsworth is a very good writer, and the novel is often amusing, and a couple of times it is laugh-out-loud funny (not something that happens with me often). The novel is also highly, amusingly and intelligently observant. The commentary on modern life is very sharp, but doesn’t bludgeon you around the head. (Dave Eggers could learn a lot from Unsworth — I’m looking you, The Circle!)
“I see you, hipster.” He smiled sweetly. “I see you, with your piecemeal personality and your dietary restrictions and your General Pinochet T-shirt.”
“Do you think you are upset by these things because you secretly want them for yourself?”
Overall, then, I would certainly recommend this novel. It’s by turns funny, sharp, and moving. If you despise social media obsession and narcissism, you may struggle with Jenny, but I still think it’s worth giving it a try. Unsworth is a great writer, and I look forward to reading her next book.
Emma Jane Unsworth’s Grown Ups is due to be published in North America by Gallery/Scout Press on May 12th, 2020. The novel is out now in the UK, published by Borough Press as Adults.
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Review copy received via NetGalley