Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

The unacceptable passing remark

The weather forecasters tell me that rain is on the way, bringing to an end the cold but sunny weather of the last week. With this in mind I decided to walk into town yesterday as my new glasses were awaiting collection at the opticians. It seemed a shame to spend a dry, bright day indoors.

I walk into town along a series of quiet lanes, cycle paths and footpaths. It is a picturesque route with only the occasional cyclist or dog walker passing by. I always try to smile and exchange a greeting; I see it as a simple, friendly gesture. I am generally wary of strange dogs but realise that most are harmless, as are their owners.

Today I was approached by a large, black, fluffy creature with a waggy tail, smooth hackles and a hangy out tongue. The owner was close at hand and assured me that the dog was friendly – good as gold – just like him, dammit. I was past before his words registered. Was this man suggesting in his friendly, jokey way that if he had not been so good then he might have behaved differently towards me? At no time did I feel threatened, but I was disturbed that this stranger saw fit to offer me what I think he saw as a complement by suggesting that I was in some way attractive enough to attack.

I have read articles in the media that disturb me in much the same way. They suggest that, if a woman chooses to dress in short skirts and low cut tops, then she cannot blame a man for raping her. If I were a man then I would be deeply insulted by this suggestion. Even if attracted to a woman, men will not generally feel an uncontrollable urge to commit rape.

When I was a teenager I used to like to wear short skirts. I did not favour the barely there, belt style, micro minis but rather a mid thigh length, straight skirt worn with thick tights and flat boots. My dad hated this look and told me that it did not suit me. I am not sure if this was because he did not like the short skirts or if he simply thought that they did not flatter me. As I have always had chunky legs in proportion to the rest of my body this may well have been true but was really beside the point. I wore the skirts because I enjoyed wearing them; end of argument.

I still have this attitude to clothes and I still have chunky legs. When I wear skirts and dresses that end a few inches above the knee I am not trying to look sexy or attractive, I just like these clothes. I dress in outfits that I enjoy wearing and neither want nor expect to attract attention. Given my advancing age I sometimes think that I should conform a little more, but then decide that this is not necessary; it is my body and I will dress as I like. If others think my style unattractive or unflattering then I can live with that. I don’t really expect to be noticed and I am comfortable with the way that I dress.

On my journey into town yesterday I was wearing trackies and a hoody (another look unlikely to flatter but very practical for a walk) so nobody could accuse me of trying to attract attention. I can only think that the man who made the comments noted that I was a woman alone on a deserted stretch of footpath between fields. I wonder if he thought that I was vulnerable. Once again the media promotes caution amongst women, suggesting that they do not go out alone for fear of attack. A lone woman is cast as a potential victim.

I am not going to live my life expecting to be victimised. When we read of a woman being attacked we should remember that large numbers travel freely and safely on a regular basis without coming to any harm. Most men are not assailants. There are some of course; it is possible to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and to be unlucky, but this is rare. I will not live my life behind locked doors nor view every strange man as an assaulter just because the media stirs up fear to gain attention.

Having a teenage daughter I have to be careful of the advice that I give her on this subject. With her tall, willowy figure she looks fabulous in whatever outfit she chooses be it short skirts and strappy tops or jeans and a t shirt. When she goes out with her friends I advise her to travel with the pack and to keep her mobile phone to hand but I do not ban her from going alone to a meet up point. It would be impractical and unfair to stop her from going out or to suggest that I should accompany her every time. I have to allow her to gain her independence even if I do worry about her every step of the way. The simple precautions that can be taken to deal with ‘stranger danger’ are one thing but warning her against all men is too much of a sweeping condemnation of an entire gender. I have sons too.

I would be devastated if my daughter were attacked (and would be none too pleased if it happened to me) but I would also be devastated if she were run over by a car. I will not ban her from crossing roads and I will not ban her from going out to socialise. What I will do is to ensure that she understands the potential dangers and knows how to take steps to avoid them. I will trust the boys that she is friends with to treat her with respect and will not assume that they mean to harm her for their own gratification.

While people accept the premise that a girl who dresses provocatively deserves her fate if she is subsequently assaulted, the myth of a man’s inability to control his actions will be accepted and perpetuated. The sexist jokes will continue and the weaker men will absolve themselves of responsibility. All of us, male and female, need to take responsibility for what we do, but how we choose to dress shouldn’t come into it. Our conversation and actions are the indicators of how we wish to proceed. It is those that should be noted and, with the participants consent, may be acted on.

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