When we first meet Emily Vidal, as a 14-year-old skulking around the snack table at her father’s 50th birthday party, she already sees herself as a fully formed adult: cynical, bitingly witty, and, most of all, a perfect judge of character (mostly character flaws).
But the acid tongue is a defence mechanism, the cynicism premature. Emily hasn’t quite realized how little she really knows about anything. In that sense, you can read The Adults, the charged debut novel from Connecticut native Alison Espach, as a long, gradual education in the grimy world of grown-up emotional warfare.
We start off as Emily passes through high school, falling in with a group of catty, boastful girls and boys and only admitting her real feelings privately in quiet moments and in small doses. She’s got plenty to work through, too: her parents are getting divorced, and one morning she comes across her troubled neighbour hanging himself in the yard. Everything gets buried under a thick coat of snark.
These early chapters are where The Adults excels, dropping the reader uncomfortably into a generation of high-school girls who talk a little too loudly about seducing their male teachers, without ever realizing how easy it might be. When Emily accidentally succeeds—with the 24-year-old literature teacher, nicknamed Mr. Basketball—she acts as if she’s in control, but in reality is crumbling without even realizing it.
Espach doesn’t linger too long on Emily’s teenage years, though, instead showing us the long-term ramifications of her youthful decisions. She moves to Prague to live with her father, becomes an interior-design student, and falls back in with Mr. Basketball (whom she’s now forced to call Jonathan). The second half of the novel moves at a clip, eventually settling into an overly familiar saga of dying parents and late-night homecomings; nothing matches the tension and richness contained within the walls of Emily’s high school.
Though I suppose showing her mature does make a useful point. Emily is no longer the girl who takes caustic delight in pointing out how the only thing that’ll ever touch her middle-aged science teacher’s ass is the chalkboard.
No, by the novel’s end, when yet another person close to Emily discloses a big, ugly secret, and her immediate reaction is to think, “It was like I already knew: to be happy I am going to have to stop listening to everybody I love,” she’s sadly earned her cynicism.
Scribner, 320 pp, $28.99, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, March 23, 2011)