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Adult Onset

by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Adult Onset is the third novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald, who is also a playwright, actor, and broadcaster. The first two books, Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, involved the sexual abuse of girls by men. This new book is about the physical abuse of children at the hands of their mothers.

Mary Rose is a successful YA author who, at age 48, fears a painful childhood illness has returned. Along with the physical discomfort come disturbing, incomplete memories of injuries, the deaths of infant siblings, and an unhinged mother. Mary Rose starts to become unhinged herself and worries she might hurt her two children. The scene is set for a roller-coaster ride offering brief moments of serenity amid increasingly terrifying plunges into the darkness of Mary Rose’s past. Suspense builds; surely, horror waits.

All three of MacDonald’s novels borrow from the author’s own life, and Adult Onset does so to such an extent that MacDonald will undoubtedly be questioned about just how autobiographical the story is. Like her creator, Mary Rose is the daughter of a military officer and his Lebanese-Canadian wife; she is a lesbian author and mother in Toronto married to a female theatre director.

An important facet of Adult Onset is the way society reacts to Mary Rose’s homosexuality. The residents of her Toronto neighbourhood treat her and her family like any other, but Mary Rose’s parents are initially horrified: her mother says it would have been better for Mary Rose to have had cancer, or even to have been born dead. With no credible explanation, both parents come to accept Mary Rose’s same-sex family. This 180-degree turn is a major flaw.

Otherwise, MacDonald’s book remains spellbinding throughout. It is impossible to forget, despite – or perhaps because of – an ending that leaves the reader exhausted and with no easy answers.