Grown Ups starts at the end. A large and happy family is gathered at a birthday party: brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam, their wives Jessie,...
Grown Ups starts at the end. A large and happy family is gathered at a birthday party: brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam, their wives Jessie, Cara and Nell, and various children from marriages present and past are enjoying an elaborate meal – some of them more so than thers. It’s a straightforward and lightly comic scene, each character playing their immutable role within the family. Jessie is bossy and in control; Ed unobservant and a little dull; Cara chaotic and rather rude; Johnny a bit of a sexist … But Cara, it turns out, is suffering from concussion. And, over an impressively catered palate cleanser of vodka and lemon sorbet, she starts spilling secrets that threaten to blow the Casey family apart.
Chapter two skips back to “six months earlier” and another gathering of the Caseys, with each subsequent chapter then leading us closer and closer to Sorbetgate and filling in the gaps to show how they got to be where they are. Of course, each character is nothing like the role in which they are straitjacketed by the family. Jessie is the successful owner of a chain of specialist food shops, but her personal spending is out of control. She insists on paying for everyone to get together because she has always been secretly convinced that nobody really likes her. She threw herself into work the day her first husband died, leaving her widowed at 34 with two young children. Her first husband, who was Johnny’s best friend.
Ed, meanwhile, is genuinely in love with his wife, Cara. And he does notice what’s going on with her, but he doesn’t know what to do. Cara is working in a swanky hotel, winning over difficult customers, binge-eating chocolate and making herself sick. “It wasn’t about the taste, it was about the feeling, chasing the calm, then the high.” Cara’s story is original, shocking and hypnotically gross, and only a writer with the warmth and empathy of Marian Keyes could pull it off. It’s a brave choice, too, to portray characters who are prey to bulimia and compulsive shopping – these are the addictions of middle-aged women with responsibilities, not the glamorous, wreck-it-all drug abuse that is more often the subject of fiction by and about men.
Often imitated, Keyes is much loved for her page‑turners that tackle weighty contemporary issues with a light touch. Rachel’s Holiday (1998) was about addiction (a storyline that echoed its author’s own experience of alcoholism); the heroine of 2006’s Anybody Out There is pole-axed by grief; 2008’s This Charming Man touches on domestic abuse; but all these novels are full of rich dialogue and laughs. What Keyes possesses that many of her imitators lack is a passionate curiosity about people and an immersion in an oral storytelling tradition that makes her writing comic, convincing and true. Grown Ups has all of this and an almost Austenesque insight into character – if Austen had written about period poverty, the trouble with fast fashion, a precocious 12-year-old who “operated like a union rep for the five youngest cousins” and a straight-talking, sauvignon-drinking asylum-seeker called Perla.
As the pages turn, we learn how the characters’ childhood stories have shaped their adult selves, and how life becomes harder to understand, sometimes, the more you know about it. “None of this was the way love was depicted in movies,” thinks one wife after learning something hurtful about her partner. “In real life when your person disappoints you, you have to re-adjust yourself – and not them – so you can keep loving them.” But should she adjust herself, or is he just a rotter? (Not-much-of-a-spoiler alert: he’s a rotter, and the most thinly drawn character in the novel. Which is a shame, because it would be fascinating to see how Keyes could make readers empathise with a narcissistic bully, if she wanted to.)
There are duff notes – Keyes provides a “newspaper profile interview” with Jessie as a quick cheat sheet to her back story; Ed thinks clunkily about a study that “said that [bulimia] sufferers had similar dopamine abnormalities in their brain to people suffering from cocaine or alcohol addiction”. But far more frequent are the small, insightful asides that tell a whole story in a single sentence: about a parent with dementia who “just faded away, like a picture left in the sun”, or an employer who is very sympathetic about mental health problems as long as they are “proper conditions like bipolar or drug addiction”.
The story inevitably builds like a drum roll to the scene with which it started, and a further conclusion that has happy endings, sad endings and not-endings-at-all – just like adult life. It’s a mature piece of work by an accomplished writer who knows how to make serious issues relatable – and get a few grownup laughs, too.
• Grown Ups is published by Michael Joseph (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.