Jami Attenberg, author of "All Grown Up." (Zack Smith Photography)
Andrea Bern is the rare female character who doesn’t live in search of a sidekick — romantic or otherwise.
She’s the protagonist of "All Grown Up," Jami Attenberg’s highly anticipated novel, released Tuesday, about a single, child-free, medium-successful art school dropout New Yorker who wonders — often through a boozy haze — what it means to be an adult, if not the accumulation of a spouse and/or children and/or a triumphant career.
There are men also, in your bed, in your world, foggily, but you are less interested in them than in muffling the voice in your head that says you are doing absolutely nothing with your life, that you are a child, that the accouterments of adulthood are (expletive), they don’t mean a (expletive) thing, and you are trapped between one place and another and you always will be unless something forces you to change.
This is Andrea, describing herself, in the first chapter of a book that manages to be funny, tragic and delightful.
Attenberg, who grew up in suburban Chicago and is perhaps best known for her 2012 novel, "The Middlesteins," said she wanted to meet someone like Andrea, so she wrote her.
"I wanted to create a character that wasn’t defined by her romantic state or status," Attenberg told me. "I felt like I’ve lived my entire life seeing movies and books and other things in our culture that represent a happy ending as finding love, and I just wanted to see a different representation of a happy ending. Not that she necessarily has a happy ending."
The book certainly doesn’t end on a happy note. But its strength lies in its ability to keep the reader questioning, throughout, what is happiness and what is, simply, rule-following.
"There’s a safety in making stereotypically adult choices, and someone who doesn’t make those kind of choices or achieve those kind of milestones can be considered threatening," Attenberg said. "The sort of people who choose unconventional paths can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable."
But uncomfortable can be good, particularly in a novel.
"If I just had characters who did everything perfectly, it wouldn’t be a very interesting book," Attenberg said. "Andrea doesn’t always make the right choices, but what I personally think is right is not necessarily what I have my characters do."
Early in the novel, Andrea’s older brother, David, has a baby girl who’s born with severe health complications. Doctors assure the family she won’t live more than five years, if that. It’s fascinating to watch how Andrea allows (or doesn’t allow) this truth to encroach on her life. She repeatedly turns down her family’s invitations to visit or help, and she distances herself, emotionally and physically, from her dying niece.
It’s troubling and, yet, familiar — a metaphor, maybe, for the way we shield ourselves from other people’s pain lest it become ours too.
Attenberg said her favorite relationship is between Andrea and her mother, widowed young and poor when Andrea’s father died of a drug overdose. But she found herself caring for each character uniquely.
"When I write books, my characters either start off really flawed, and I write my way into loving them, or I start out loving them and write my way into their flaws," she said. "There wasn’t one character where I was like, ‘I’m sick of you.’"
Indigo, Andrea’s longtime best friend, is a yoga instructor whose gorgeous baby and wealth-infused marriage belie a lonely existence.
"Her life is architected, elegant and angular, a beauty to behold," Andrea says of Indigo. "And mine is a stew, a juicy, sloppy mess of ingredients and feelings and emotions, too much salt and spice, too much anxiety, always a little dribbling down the front of my shirt.
"But have you tasted it? Have you tasted it. It’s delicious."
And refreshingly different from the usual fare.
Jami Attenberg will appear in conversation with Chicago author Lindsay Hunter at 7 p.m. March 30 at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. More info at www.bookcellarinc.com/event.
‘All Grown Up’
By Jami Attenberg, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages, $25
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