Ann-Marie MacDonald’s risky business

Adult Onset is author’s boldest work yet

A trailer with excerpts from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s new novel, Adult Onset.

Random House

Mary-Rose MacKinnon has a life many would envy. A successful author from the days before bookstores became chic boutiques with incidental sprinklings of literature, MacKinnon has nestled into a comfortable semi-retirement with her partner, Hilary, and their two young children. The family lives in Toronto’s artsy Annex neighbourhood (complete with Margaret Atwood sightings), with Mary-Rose taking on the lion’s share of homemaker duties while Hilary works as a playwright and director. There’s a dog, a restored heritage home and a selection of kitchen utensils that would make Martha Stewart moisten her perfectly pressed panties. So why isn’t Mary-Rose (known to all as “Mister”) happy?

For one thing, she’s experiencing a disturbing resurgence of symptoms from a serious childhood bout of pediatric bone cysts. But when a specialist assures Mister that a recurrence is impossible in adults, she begins to wonder if the ache in her bones is rooted in disruption of a more emotional nature. This initiates an excavation of family history that threatens to undermine not only her marriage, but also the carefully constructed relationship between Mister and her aging parents.

“This is probably the riskiest thing I’ve ever done,” says Ann-Marie MacDonald of her new novel, Adult Onset. “It’s about as autobiographical as anything else I’ve written.”

The parallels between MacDonald and Mister are fairly stark: both authors live in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, both are married to theatre directors, and both are parents to two young children — though MacDonald’s are adopted girls, while Mister has a boy and a girl. MacDonald even shares her creation’s history with bone cysts.

“There wasn’t a great gap between my raw material and the fiction,” MacDonald admits, laughing. “I just wrote from the inside out. I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, then I just have to go for it.’”

Fortunately MacDonald’s partner, Alisa Palmer, was okay with being fictionalized in such an intimately personal manner, though the character Hilary spends much of the book away with work while Mister unravels her sense of self and family amidst the chaos of raising small children. But even as Mister struggles on her own with toddler tantrums and phantom pain, the snippets of memories and phone conversations still evoke a strong sense of togetherness with her wife despite the small power struggles and annoyances that are part of any long-term relationship.


As with her award-winning novels Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, MacDonald exhibits a beautifully subtle gift of weaving internal dialogue with day-to-day life; Mister still manages to prepare meals, walk the dog and shop for organic produce while digging deep into a childhood cloudy with suspected abuse and neglect. The two worlds travel side by side in perfect tandem, with flashes of humour, insight and delicious satire as MacDonald playfully skewers hipster obsessions with all things organic, fair-trade and BPA-free plastic food containers.

Some of the most gripping of Adult Onset’s vignettes are the departures from Mister’s own voice, written from the historic point of view of her postpartum-depressed mother. Dolly’s struggle to connect with her newborn child after losing two others is heartbreaking, and the helplessness she feels as a 1960s army wife in a foreign land is palpable.

Given that MacDonald spent the first few years of her life on a Royal Canadian Air Force base in Germany, it’s probably safe to say that there are some hard truths from real life seeping into her characters’ personal histories.

“There’s definitely some portraiture,” MacDonald says. “Lucian Freud painted his mother 87 times. I’ve only written [mine] four times, so I have some way to go. She’s bought hundreds of my books, though. She’ll tell everyone in the bookstore that I’m her daughter, but I don’t actually think she’s read any of them.”

As daunting as this blend of reality and fiction can be, MacDonald believes that drawing from her own life experiences nurtures the connection between her work and its readers — particularly for future fans who may have a more personal connection to the stories.

“I know my children are going to read this someday, and I really needed to honour my sources and materials. This is the first thing I’ve written as a parent, and nothing in my life has tested me or required the kind of real self-examination that becoming a parent has. There are always new depths and chambers.”

Adult Onset, published by Knopf Canada, is available in bookstores now.

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