Author Jami Attenberg's Newest Heroine Is the anti-Jewish Mother

'All Grown Up,' Attenberg's latest novel, explores what it means for a New York woman to be single, childless and almost 40.

The cover of 'All Grown Up'.

“All Grown Up,” by Jami Attenberg, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 197 pp., $25

Jami Attenberg’s “All Grown Up” is one of the more ironic of titles for a novel-in-stories, and, yes: that’s intentional. On its face, the title makes a joke of the book’s narrator: a single Jewish woman on the cusp of 40, who remains defined by her scant ambition, limited motivation, and honed taste for drugs, alcohol and casual sex. But on a deeper level, it asks: who is Andrea Bern? “I’m alone,” she offers. “I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”

If her identity sounds like a satirical headline — “Middle-Aged Woman, Adrift and in Decline, Avoids Meaning and Purpose” — it’s one that Andrea (initially known only as “you”) believes she embodies. It’s also one she’s not burning to change: “For a few weeks it seems like they might try to give you an enormous promotion at work, but then you realize you’ll have more responsibility so you wiggle your way out of it.”

“All Grown Up” doesn’t condemn Andrea for her state. Instead, its powerful vignettes, which range from 1988 to 2016 and blow her family back and forth in time, underscore the gale-force role that chance has played in their lives. Given that, what does adulthood look like to Andrea Bern? From a remove, it resembles the Manhattan skyline as seen from her solitary Brooklyn apartment: lovely, traceable and distant. But up close, it just looks painful. Joy doesn’t last, Andrea thinks — loved ones die; friends divorce — so why even try?

Like Bartleby, the Scrivener, another static New Yorker, Andrea would prefer not to. Instead, she dons a number of pre-thwarted labels: art school dropout, disaffected ad designer, shikker, and the youngest in a socialist family that once occupied the bottom rungs of Manhattan’s economic ladder. For years, the Berns were a struggling unit of three — widowed mother; musician son; floundering daughter — a secular trinity shaped by good intentions, but then left, after the overdose of Andrea’s father, a jazz musician, to seesaw between poor and destitute.

Here, the book limns a gap between utopian rhetoric and reality, one that left a 14-year-old Andrea to teeter on its edge. After her father died, “[m]y mother was always inviting over all these pothead social activists,” she later tells a coworker — men who’d pay a few bucks for a meal. Some “would insist I sit on their lap and I could feel them hard up against me.” “‘Did they ever stick it in?’” asks the colleague. Andrea snorts. “‘I always wore pants to dinner at my house.’”

Dark humor defines Andrea’s voice. It keeps her — barely — afloat, even as it leaves her paddling in place while others swim. In time, her mother, Evelyn, moves on emotionally. Her brother, David, becomes an indie rocker bankrolled by his girlfriend Greta, a photo editor. But Andrea, after landing work through Greta, spends her free time getting blasted, sleeping with proximal males, and drawing the Empire State Building, as framed by her apartment window, over and over: “There’s no challenge to it, no message, just your view, on repeat. But this is all you can do, this is all you have to offer, and it is just enough to make you feel special.”

Cue the violins. Andrea indulges in self-pity — but she also owns a sense of untapped potential: “You are not not talented,” she admits to herself.

Still, her lot remains unchanged. Can Andrea read as frustrating? Yes. Defeatist? Sure. Self-dramatizing? That, too. But this is where Attenberg’s brilliance lies: in her ability to mix tenderness with tragicomedy; to find what’s funny in the funereal; to render the dignity of those who fear they’ve lost it. As seen in her earlier novel “The Middlesteins,” her tour-de-force about a smart attorney eating herself to death, Attenberg’s characters aren’t merely self-destructive. They’re also deeply, humanly memorable.

Certainly, this holds true for Andrea, even if no one calls her by name until the book’s fourth chapter, as if to underscore her fecklessness. Still, as much as her amoebic state can rankle, she owns such unblinking sincerity, along with a wry, indelible voice, that she feels impossible to dismiss.

So, too, does Andrea’s mother, who, well into her daughter’s adulthood, continues to direct her rare outdoors activities. “You march where your activist mother tells you to march,” Andrea says passively, without specifying what for (or against) or when.

So don’t expect her to turn into Allison Portchnik: that stock figure of liberal conscience from the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall.” Attenberg doesn’t truck in that kind of tale. Instead, she’s created a narrator — one flailing, but complex — with relatives who start out doctrinaire or hipster enough to be comical, yet also real enough to be bent by forces more powerful and sober than their wills.

From the book’s standalone chapters that beam across time, we learn early on that David and Greta go on to marry and have a desperately ill child, Sigrid. Her birth ends their run of being young and happily paired. It cancels whatever policy made them the onetime beneficiaries of blind, good luck.

But what does their misfortune mean for Andrea and her arc of development? Initially, not much. She finally realizes that the recliner her mother gave her years before, as a housewarming gift, is the one her father died in. She navigates her weekly phone call to Greta, who’s relocated to New Hampshire to raise her failing child. She suffers an online date with a man who asks if she’s read the new self-help book on being single, one that he hasn’t. Still, he knows, he says, that "'it’s totally about you.’ And I say, ‘You’re single too, why isn’t it about you?’ And he says, ‘Oh, this? This is just temporary for me.’

“The permanence of my impermanence. I stand in possession of it,” Andrea thinks suddenly, furiously, in a stab at self-definition, her loneliness and aimlessness aside. “I stand before him at the entrance to a subway station, in possession of nothing but myself. Myself is everything, I want to tell him.”

From the site of their shared misery, she adds: “His context is not my context. How do you blow up the bus you’ve been forced to ride your entire life? It wasn’t your fault there were no other means of transportation available.”

Was Andrea as predestined to ride the bus as she believes? It’s a question that “All Grown Up” leaves ambiguous. Even as Andrea and her family’s disappointments mount, the book sidesteps a trend to diagnose characters, rather than depict them.

That doesn’t mean that the Berns don’t call each other out, however. “‘I see you not holding that baby. You think I don’t notice it, but I do,’” Andrea’s mother hisses at her, following their drive together from the city to the sad north, where Sigrid’s doing a slow fade. “‘Handle your shit, Andrea,’” her mother says.

“I’m the sick baby, I think. Me. Who will hold me?” Andrea wonders in silence, her thought at once childlike and universal in its ache.

Still, during their visit, she asks her brother about both Sigrid and his marriage: “‘How are you and Greta doing?’” In reply, David “scratches his beard, rubs his eyes, pats his bald scalp, like fully interacts with his head in all ways possible, then says, ‘Sometimes she thinks Sigrid is getting better. So that’s weird.’

“‘Sigrid is never getting better,’” Andrea informs him. “‘Sigrid is only ever getting worse.’”  His response is the only real one possible: “'You don’t need to tell me that.’”

What does it mean to accept how fundamental events have turned out? To grasp that “there are things time passing can never make come true,” as the William Stafford poem “Thinking for Berky” puts it, and yet muscle forward?

What it means, this outstanding book suggests, is to be able to shoulder a crushing sorrow, and yet maintain hope for a less burdened future. Each one is a telling measure that Andrea could still embrace — however late — of being all grown up.

Susan Comninos is a book critic and poet. Her journalism's appeared in The Atlantic Online, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Jewish Daily Forward, among others. Recently, she completed a debut book of poems, “Out of Nowhere.”