Book Review: Emma Jane Unsworth’s “Grown Ups,” a Midlife Crisis Novel for the Instagram Era

Book Review: Emma Jane Unsworth’s “Grown Ups,” a Midlife Crisis Novel for the Instagram Era

It seems fitting that there’s some ambiguity regarding the title of Emma Jane Unsworth’s new novel. It’s been published in the U.K. as Adults, but it seems to be headed for U.S. shelves as Grown Ups.

The book’s protagonist doesn’t particularly feel like much of either, putting Grown Ups in the same ironically titled corpus as Tom Perotta’s Little Children. A Londoner in her mid-30s, Jenny’s recently single and struggling enough to allow her mother to move back in and help her sort things out. Meanwhile, she’s reeling from her ex’s new relationship with one of her online frenemies and also pursuing “friendship therapy” with a pal who’s grown sick of her.

We understand where the friend is coming from, because Jenny’s a mess. A columnist whose readers are drifting away, she’s gone from mining her personal life for prose gold to rendering it into toneless Instagram posts. One of the book’s best scenes is its opening, as Jenny drives herself to tears over a stale croissant she didn’t have the guts to refuse — and over how to caption an image from the bakery, ultimately going with “CROISSANT, WOO! #CROISSANT,” and passive-aggressively adding “#shameabouttheservice.”

One of the refreshing things about Grown Ups is that Unsworth makes Jenny’s phone as constant a character in her life as ours are in our own. She nicely captures the way that technology mediates experience in episodes like the cringe-worthy moment when Jenny tries to snap a tipsy selfie with a social media influencer who has to say no, thank you.

She includes full text and e-mail exchanges, one of the features — along with numerous chapters that are short, sometimes to the point of having little more than a title — that makes Grown Ups an easy read. Truth be told, though, it’s not a page-turner.

A major reason for that is the slightly scrambled timeframe, flashing forward and back among chapters that rely on your knowledge of Jenny’s trajectory to figure out when they’re taking place. The technique evokes Jenny’s jumbled mind, but also impedes our investment in the narrative. Jenny gradually learns that a boozy haze is an unpleasant state in which to live your life, and we believe it, because we’ve been right there with her for the entire book. Wait, what friend is this? Were Jenny and Art still together when this happened? Does it really matter?

There’s more going on here than there was in Unsworth’s acclaimed novel Animals, since made into a movie starring Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The earlier book focused closely on the relationship between two tight friends, with the less outgoing woman learning how to move beyond a reliance on her spitfire ally. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, meaning Jenny’s stuck with her mom, an entertainer who’s recently been in the business of channeling the deceased.

Unsworth explores the shape of the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter, but only in fits and bursts among the other legs of this sprawling story. The book is full of amusing quips, but they land like laugh lines, often distracting instead of illuminating.

All that said, Grown Ups is a genuinely adult look at a decade of life that’s gaining increasing attention as marriage and kids get pushed back — or pushed out. Jenny’s frustration with her photographer ex is a incisive illustration of what it’s like to wrestle with the kid question when you’re the one whose body is tugging your sleeve and reminding you about biological realities.

“Once you hit thirty-five you’re technically a geriatric mother,” observes Jenny, asking her boyfriend, “What should we do?”

His response: “I was thinking we could order a takeaway and demolish a box set.” In other words, Netflix and entirely too chill.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Detail from the cover of Grown Ups