“Life for me is the same as it was five years ago, ten, even; I have a slightly larger apartment, a slightly better salary, slightly more projects to juggle at work, slightly duller skin, a few more grey hairs that I pay my hairdresser two thousand kroner every three months to make disappear.” Arrested development is the compelling focus of Marie Aubert’s debut novel, which explores what it means to be an adult in contemporary society.
For previous generations, the concept of an adult seemed, in a general sense and particularly for women, easier to define: marriage, children, repeating the cycle of one’s parents, continuing the legacy, handing down whatever that might be. Now, in a world where geriatric births (35 and upwards), infertility and child-free living are all far more prevalent, Grown Ups examines the shifting parameters of adulthood for women.
Two of the book’s central questions are: what does it take to really grow up? And is it possible to leave the past behind without having children or a family of one’s own?
The protagonist, Ida (40), a Norwegian architect planning to freeze her eggs and possibly have a child by a sperm donor if she can’t find a partner soon, struggles to find answers to these questions over the course of a short, sharp narrative. Aubert cleverly condenses time and space, which mirrors the internal battle raging in Ida’s mind. The book is set over a long weekend in a cramped holiday cabin, where Ida and various family members gather to celebrate her mother’s 65th birthday. There is a pressure-cooker feel right from the opening scene.
Ida is a complex protagonist, refreshingly honest and pragmatic, but also brutally envious of her younger sister Marthe, a feeling that has been around since childhood and has morphed into something close to hatred in their adult relationship.
These difficult emotions in a character can be hard for a reader to bear, but Aubert skilfully shifts sympathies between the sisters over and back throughout the book, which gives a dynamic quality to proceedings. Both sisters are caught up in their own dramas – Ida’s loneliness is set against Marthe’s trouble in her marriage to Kristoffer and with her stepdaughter Olea – and instead of empathy for each other there is a tragic antipathy that stems from the past.
From the way Ida refuses to acknowledge her sister’s various pains, which range from intangible and whining, to incredibly real issues such as Crohn’s disease and miscarriage, through the constant backbiting and cutting remarks from both sisters over the course of the weekend, we get the sense that this is no average sibling rivalry. There is something laced and murky going on that never quite gets explained.
Instead, we have plenty of humour offsetting the serious themes. Grown Ups wears its subject matter lightly. Being in the presence of her family in close quarters makes Ida feel “alone and restless and in need of a few Imovane”. Elsewhere, she scrutinises her sister’s behaviour around Olea: “Is this the kind of thing people do when they’re with children, say totally unnecessary things? It’s as if she were talking to a dog.”
The mother’s boyfriend, Stan, is a particularly vibrant character with his tactless musings – “ ‘Am I not allowed to ask the question? Is it a ‘me too’ thing?’ ” – but ultimately he proves the voice of wisdom as the celebrations derail and age-old resentments come to a head.
The book’s study of the heartbreak and humour to be found in familial relationships have echoes of Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had. The astute observations on the subject of procreation in Emma Gannon’s Olive is another contemporary touchstone.
Aubert made her debut in 2016 with the acclaimed short story collection Can I Come Home With You?. In Norway, Grown Ups has already won the Young People’s Critics’ Prize and was nominated for the Booksellers’ Prize. Rosie Hedger’s English translation is clean and fluid, with the occasional standout description.
At one point in the book, Ida references Festen, the Danish Dogme 95 film where secrets of the past come back to haunt at a 60th birthday celebration. Grown Ups isn’t as dark in its subject matter but it succeeds in the same way as the film by offering a succinct and thought-provoking exploration of the family unit and how it shapes individual lives.
For Ida, time is running out to get her life together, something that seems even more poignant in the confined world of the past 18 months: “Things will get better, I tell myself, everything will get better, I’ll freeze my eggs in Sweden, I’ll become something else, there’s something else out there for me, the best is yet to come.”