For the second time in a matter of weeks I’ve read a book that I wouldn’t normally have picked up simply because it was well recommended by Elizabeth Strout and, for the second time in a matter of weeks, I have had an absolutely wonderful experience. Strout is clearly as good a critic as she is a writer. Emma Straub’s All Adults Here is set in the Hudson Valley small town of Clapham, a community where everyone knows everyone else and where the marketing slogan Keep Local, Shop Small really means something. It is in Clapham that Astrid Strick has brought up her family, Elliot, Porter and Nicky, all now adults grown and it is here, at the moment when the novel begins, that she recognises that her life has changed forever. What brings this revelation about is the death of Barbara Baker, a woman Astrid has never liked, but whose death she witnesses when Barbara is run over by a speeding school bus. Astrid has a secret and the accident makes her realise that the time has come to reveal that secret, initially to her family and eventually to her friends and wider acquaintances, despite being aware that her plans may well meet with opposition. However, she is not the only member of her family to be concealing things. Both of her older children, still living in Clapham, have important matters which they are keeping from the rest of the family for fear of the consequences and much of the novel is concerned with the difficulty that parents and children have not only in communicating with each other but also, perhaps more fundamentally, in understanding each other and in providing the support and encouragement that is needed when the going gets tough.
This is most obvious, initially at least, in respect of what has happened to Nicky’s daughter, Cecelia, as a result of an incident in her New York school. Confided in by her friend Katherine, who is involved in a relationship with an older man which is clearly abusive, Cecelia, concerned for her classmate’s well-being, tells those that she expects to be responsible and supportive adults. However, in the aftermath of the fury that erupts as Katherine turns against her, Nicky and his wife, Juliette, fail to come up with the backing Cecelia so desperately needs.
The trouble was that people always told Cecelia things, and that she wasn’t a lawyer or a therapist. She was just a kid and so were her friends, but she seem to be the only one who knew it. The trouble was that her parents had given up at the first sign of trouble.
As a result, the decision has been taken to send Cecelia to live with her grandmother and complete her final year at Junior High in Clapham. When she needed her parents most, they simply weren’t there for her. Straub, however, is very careful not to be too condemnatory in respect of either the behaviour of Nicky and Juliette or that of Astrid who, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear has not really provided the support her children needed a generation earlier. Being a parent is difficult. This is the message that comes through time after time after time. And there is no manual, you have to learn as you go. Is there any wonder that so many people get it wrong.
If there is one set of parents who do seem to be well on the way to getting it right it is Ruth and John Sullivan. We meet them first as they fetch their 13-year-old son, August, back from Summer Camp. August is dreading going back into eighth grade, knowing that it’s going to be no better than fifth grade, sixth grade or seventh grade was. He has no friends at Clapham Junior High and only ever feels that he is fully able to be himself amongst the people he meets up with each year during the summer vacation. For August also has a secret and it is one that he feels certain will earn him at best ridicule and at worse abuse, should it become known. Ruth and John however do seem to have an understanding of what is troubling their child and they certainly do their best to offer support as, with Cecelia‘s help, August finds the courage to show the world, or perhaps more importantly, his classmates, who he really is.
I’m conscious that I may be making this sound as if it’s a really serious and heart searching novel, one that is searing to read, and it is serious, and at times it really touches your heart, but searing it is not; it is an absolute delight. I found myself trying to eke it out because I didn’t want to leave either the world that Straub has created nor the lightness of touch with which she explores the difficulties that the Strick family go through. And there are some wonderful passages of writing. When I looked back through my notebook I found I had copied out paragraph after paragraph of ideas that just rang so true and were expressed so well. I have already read some very good books this year, but so far All Adults Here tops them all and I can’t recommend it too highly.
With grateful thanks to Michael Joseph and NetGalley for the review copy.