Grown Ups, by Marian Keyes, Michael Joseph, 656 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0718179755
Those of us who appreciate genre fiction were delighted when Marian Keyes reminded Colm Tóibín that his most popular book, Brooklyn, could easily belong to one of the literary genres he professed to despise. Significantly, Brooklyn is the only one of Tóibín’s novels I’ve ever managed to finish. I love any story that traces the changing fortunes of an interconnected cast of convincing characters, thrashing out their problems and their relationships. Other attractions of popular fiction are vivid descriptions of what people do (work), how they look (clothes) and where they go (settings, not necessarily exotic, just well-described). Marian Keyes delivers on all of these counts, and has the added bonus of being laugh-out-loud funny. In Grown Ups the entire extended family goes to Tuscany for a week. While the villa and the village are depicted as both beautiful and comfortable – wonderful escapist reading for a dreary February ‑ Florence itself is ho-hum underwhelming. The Uffizi gallery is given its due, but outside it a man plays the theme from The Godfather on an accordion, the model for the statue of David, a character remarks, must have been very cold, and the town centre consists of “seven-storey buildings in every gradation of yellow, from buttercup to straw, tottering over narrow, pedestrianized streets”. Yep, that’s pretty much Florence. Far more attractive is an Easter weekend in a Killarney hotel, complete with lake walks, mountain hikes, spa treatments and tension, and a Tipperary Electric-Picnic-type festival with outdoor forest baths set on wooden slats, fed by hot springs, with bath oils and fluffy white towels. There are also weekends in Mayo and Antrim. A necessary literary device to throw characters together in unfamiliar settings, communal family/friend away-events feature a lot in genre/popular fiction ‑ Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret, Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party and TM Logan’s The Holiday are just three examples. If fiction has taught me anything, it is to never, ever attempt anything like this in real life.
Grown Ups’ core family, Jessie, her second husband, Johnny Casey, and their offspring are so rich that their satellites sometimes have trouble keeping up. A highly successful businesswoman, Jessie thinks of everybody and pays for everything and everyone, and then has a spectacular meltdown when her fiftieth birthday does not live up to her expectations. This disastrous away-event, in Antrim, is one of the funniest parts of the book, but I have never read anything as uncomfortably real as Jessie’s completely over-the-top reaction to it. Cara, married to Johnny’s brother Ed, seems far more secure in her marriage and her job, but she has a secret addiction. Nell is a struggling (and the struggles are realistically portrayed) theatrical set-designer married to the third brother, Liam, the kind of man who always sidles up for sex when a woman is in the middle of creative work. The three brothers have hilariously unlikeable parents, whose fiftieth wedding anniversary is the occasion for another all-family away-event in Mayo. Throughout the book there are marriages under threat, there is a sizzling, semi-taboo love affair, there is a confused teenage girl (I would have liked more of Saoirse) and her truly horrible friend, there are outspoken smaller girls who are a kind of chorus. The characters are (for the most part) believable, and most of the situations are resolved, so why was I a little less than satisfied when I got to the end?
I think it was because there are simply too many characters and plotlines and not all are worked out satisfactorily. What happened to Cara and Ed in the end (no spoilers) seemed a bit rushed and unconvincing. How could the Kinsellas, portrayed as such lovely people, allow their initial negative reaction to their widowed daughter-in-law’s remarriage to harden into lifelong hostility? And the little girls, if they were brought in at all, could have been given a bit more airtime. Also, information about, and exposition of “other people’s worlds” is part of the package in popular fiction and we feel cheated if we don’t get enough of it. I would have liked more of Cara’s hotel job (described up to a point), which she loves and values, and Nell’s precarious but exciting way of life is only glanced off. The comic potential of Jessie’s courting of celebrity chefs for her business is not fully explored either, or even fully explained. (Was she giving them all those gifts or using them as part payment?)
There are a few wince-cringe moments. The Caseys’ nanny is male because Jessie thinks it is good for her daughters to see a man “in a servile position”. (Is looking after children “servile” work?) I was also disappointed with the plot-line of the Syrian asylum-seeker doctor, Perla, and her daughter Kassandra; neither Christian nor Muslim, with middle class values, they slot conveniently into the Caseys’ milieu. It would have been a different book if the Caseys’ bourgeois secularism was challenged, and this is exactly the kind of book I can imagine Keyes writing, chuckling away as she does so. In any case, just as we are getting to know Perla and Kassandra, we are whirled off into the spin cycle of passionate yearning, overwhelming temptation, misunderstandings, compulsions and family politics.
Still, the book is hugely enjoyable and depicts unusual, uncomfortable emotions not often acknowledged in fiction – a woman wondering if her husband and children love her or just tolerate her, adult children who dislike their parents (and vice versa), a father who is completely indifferent to his two little girls, a woman ambushed by treacherous happiness when she imagines all the chocolate she is going to eat the following day. Grown Ups made me think a lot about families and love and hurt, about what is forgiveable and what is not. It also made me really, really want to experience one of those outdoor forest baths.
Caitriona Clear teaches history at The National University of Ireland, Galway.