I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had for ever closed behind them.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
What does it mean to be a “grown-up”? That’s one of the questions that Robin Antalek asks in her engaging coming-of-age novel, The Grown Ups. The book opens in the summer of 1997, with Suzie Epstein, Sam Turner, and their friends celebrating Suzie’s fifteenth birthday at a loosely supervised party in Rye, New York. That night, Suzie and Sam embark on a clandestine romance that will last all summer.
Right away, we know something is not right in the neighborhood: “It was the summer all the children in the neighborhood caught a virus.” Soon it becomes apparent that the grown-ups have more serious problems than the stomach flu: “The second time Mr. Epstein caused a scene in the driveway of the Epstein family home, the neighborhood was still under siege by the virus and was unusually quiet for the middle of a summer day.”
The Epsteins’ marriage is not the only troubled one in the neighborhood. Later in the summer, Sam’s mother abandons her husband and sons, leaving suddenly with no explanation. Suzie’s family moves to Boston, where her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s philandering escalate. She becomes the adult in the family, caring for her mother and her two younger brothers. Suzie desperately misses her old friends in Rye, especially her best friend, Bella Spade; out of embarrassment, she doesn’t answer their letters or phone calls.
When Bella’s mother dies of a long and mysterious illness, the old friends, now college juniors, all reunite at her funeral. Suzie, to everyone’s surprise, arrives on the arm of Michael Turner, Sam’s brilliant and accomplished older brother. Sam, who’s had an on-again, off-again relationship with Bella, is surprised at the emotions Suzie evokes. The remaining three-quarters of the book focuses on the relationships among Sam, Suzie, Bella, and Michael, as they struggle to succeed as fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.
Sam, in particular, fumbles his way through life, unable to commit to anyone or anything. His kindhearted father, Hunt — one of the few responsible and stable adults in the novel — shows admirable patience as Sam repeatedly makes bad decisions. Sam understands the depth of his father’s support: “If ever he had any illusion that he could survive in the world without his father, Sam was dumber than he already felt.” Of course, like all children, Sam will one day have to survive without his father’s love and guidance; isn’t that what being “grown up” is all about?
Sam is by far the most interesting and well-developed character in the novel. In an interview on Albany Public Radio, Robin Antalek says her early drafts of the book were narrated by Sam. Later, she rewrote The Grown Ups in the third person, adding the viewpoints of Suzie and Bella. The multiple perspectives add texture and depth to the book, but Suzie and Bella don’t come alive the way Sam does.
Some of the details in the novel seem inappropriate to the era. For example, the description of the mothers’ activities — hanging laundry outside, smoking cigarettes on their front stoops –sounds more like a description of housewives in the early sixties (the Madmen era) than in the late nineties. I would have appreciated more details pointing to the passage of time — for example, references to new technology or pop culture would underscore the novel’s themes of changing and getting older.
Many things happen in 15 years — weddings, funerals, births, illnesses, triumphs and disappointments large and small — and a lot of growing up. The Grown Ups both begins and ends with a birthday party. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think it’s safe to reveal that the party in the last chapter is very different from the disastrous one in the first chapter:
They were here now, all of them. Relationships slightly rearranged, but still together. That was more than any of them would have imagined years before. They had watched their parents stumble and vowed never to do the same, only to fail one another in entirely different ways . . .
If you enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and/or Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, The Grown Ups will be up your alley.
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