Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Adult Onset
Ann-Marie MacDonald
Knopf Canada

Ann-Marie MacDonald is an award-winning actor, playwright, broadcaster and author. Given the range and depth of her talents, readers should not be surprised to read something completely original in Adult Onset. Although there are some similarities with her two previous best-selling novels Fall On Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, namely a father in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a mother of Lebanese descent, MacDonald’s new release does not span decades.

Instead Adult Onset takes place in real-time, focusing on just 7 days in the life of forty-something stay-at-home mom Mary Rose MacKinnon, also known as Mister. In this typical week, which starts out relatively peacefully, Mary Rose toils alone with her 4-year-old son and willful 2-year-old daughter while her partner is out of town. For unexplained reasons, she is suddenly seized with discomfort and then pain.

As a child, she had a medical condition that she has long since grown out of. The adult onset of her pain, as she slowly discovers, is the resurfacing of long-buried early childhood trauma that she has not yet come to terms with. The reader follows Mister’s every thought, slipping back to her vivid childhood memories, as she tries to pinpoint the source of her malaise.

Raising young children is, after all, when most of us are likely to revisit our childhoods. Mister’s parents, Dunc and Dolly, may not seem ideal by the standards of today’s helicopter parents. They are tough as parents were in the day when it was believed that a coddled child would not fare well. Mister is also a child who was born in Germany, where her father was stationed. Dolly, like many military wives, had to come to grips with the strain of raising her young children far from her family, while grieving the loss of two other children.

I identified very closely with Mister, as I had my two children late in life and was familiar with the obsessive thoughts about banishing BPA-laden plastic containers and finding organic ingredients year round for my children. I was also haunted by the resurgence of my own childhood trauma, which MacDonald portrays perfectly, so perfectly in fact that I was convinced that this book was a memoir.

Rather than using trauma as a literary device to propel the story, the author opted for a realistic, intellectually honest portrayal of trauma, a process of two steps forward one step back, until Mister has her epiphany. There is other trauma in Adult Onset that I found equally as moving. As a young adult, Mister came out to her parents in the early 1980s.

Although straight folk often equate the eighties with sexual openness, Dunc and Dolly are anything but accepting of Mister’s sexual orientation. While it is easy for outsiders to dismiss this as mere bigotry, MacDonald takes us in for a close-up of Mister’s relationship with her parents and shows us where the pain lies, particularly in relation to her father.

He is not horrible or narrow-minded. Instead, he is a warm, intelligent, loving father who just can’t accept his daughter’s homosexuality, which he sees as a lifestyle choice and not a matter of identity. MacDonald does a beautiful job of balancing the story with Dolly and Dunc’s acceptance and rejection of their daughter’s homosexuality, something that afflicts Mister’s entire adult life.

 According to MacDonald, Adult Onset was the most interior of her three novels and the hardest one to write. She describes it as the third book in a trilogy, and while it may appear to be a memoir, the author has said that it is about a character who is very similar to herself, living in a parallel universe.

 I was taken aback by this book for many reasons. As an army brat who grew up in Kingston, Ontario, where many of Mister’s childhood memories are set, MacDonald describes the town exactly as I remember it, right down to her father’s drive to RMC in the morning. In fact, I lived a few streets away from Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic grade school in Kingston where a clear-eyed nun identifies Mary Rose MacKinnon as a gifted child.

My personal connection to the book aside, this is a beautiful, spellbinding story. Although some may argue that it doesn’t have quite the same entertainment value as Fall On Your Knees, I would argue that Adult Onset will be one of her most enduring books. Let’s hope that there will be many, many more.

This has been crossposted at Montreal's Rover Arts.


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