The three-tiered Anglo-Saxon name of her new novel’s protagonist is just one of many suggestions that Ann-Marie MacDonald wasn’t kidding when she said in a recent interview that “everything” she writes is autobiographical. Like her creator, Mary Rose MacKinnon was born on a German military base to a Cape Breton-born father and mother of Lebanese extraction, is the Toronto-based author of two bestselling novels (young adult fantasy in this instance) and is married to Hilary, a theatre director (MacDonald is married to the theatre director Alisa Palmer). Like MacDonald, Mary Rose endured an agonizing coming out process; her mother’s withering reaction—“I would rather you had cancer”—turns out to be one of Adult Onset’s non-fictional elements.
In Mary Rose’s Annex neighbourhood—whose landmarks, haunts and personalities (Honest Ed’s, Fiesta Farms, Margaret Atwood) MacDonald tosses like candy from a streetcar—people stop her in the street and ask when the final book in her trilogy is coming out. The query rankles: Mary Rose has put her career on indefinite hold to be stay-at-home mom to her Hilary’s two young kids, a job whose patented, oxymoronic mix of frustration and tediousness she often describes in militaristic, martial terms.
But childrearing is also having another, more unsettling effect on Mary Rose: it’s forcing her to view her family history afresh “as though awakening from an anaesthetic.” When Mary Rose was a young girl, a fall from a balcony alerted her to the presence of painful bone cysts in her arm. Now, several decades and two surgeries later, the pain is suddenly, inexplicably back. Mary Rose is also suffering severe anxiety, hallucinations, memory loss and, most concerningly, moments of explosive rage directed at her toddler, Maggie.
Adult Onset is the chronicle of Mary Rose’s emotional unraveling over a single week spent alone with the kids—her passive-aggressive phone spats with Hilary, who’s away working in Calgary, are one of the novel’s subtle highlights and a reminder of MacDonald’s screenwriting talents—that’s to be capped off with a brief visit with her parents who are travelling home from their wintering grounds in Victoria.
Flashbacks reveal an upbringing spent alone in the shadow of her mother’s postpartum depression. Dolly had a rare blood disorder that resulted in multiple miscarriages and two dead full-term babies—one of which was also called Mary Rose. Dolly has lately been showing signs of an Alzheimer’s-like confusion and has taken to speaking animatedly, even jokingly, about her “dead babies.”
What stymies the novel isn’t the quality of MacDonald’s typically limber prose—she goes for laughs here far more than in her previous work and manages to land a few zingers—but its unnecessarily high narrative thread count. If feels like about a third of our time is spent on the dreck and dross of parenting (battles over clothing, naps, potentially dangerous objects) and on establishing Mary Rose’s urban liberal bona fides (she washes fruit whose rind is inedible, worries that her vine-ripened tomatoes are from Israel)—both of which strike me as cases where telling, not showing, is absolutely fine.
What’s more, Mary Rose’s prolonged failure to see what we do almost from the start—that motherhood may be acting as a trigger for repressed abuse—eventually curdles anticipation into frustration. Like a character in a horror film, Mary Rose keeps turning away at the last minute from the monster poised right behind her shoulder. The clues are there, sledgehammer-like, in an abusive ten-year relationship with her ex-girlfriend, in the casual way Dolly mock-slaps her, in the flashbacks’ repeated, ominous language (“As long as she stays lying down nothing bad will happen. She gets up”). It’s even there, as bald allegory, in Mary Rose’s books.
“Why is it surprising that truth makes its way out through the body like a vine invading from within?” ponders Mary Rose after the penny has finally begun its long-awaited plunge. It isn’t; what is surprising is that she would have doubted it in the first place.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor