The Holiday with the Extended Family … yes for some people it’s a thing, and for the really masochistic family, they may actually own a holiday home and (insanely) plan time together. That’s the scenario in Norwegian author, Marie Aubert’s novel, Grown Ups.
It’s the family matriarch’s 65th birthday, and daughters Ida and Marie plan a celebration at the family owned country cabin. Ida is a 40 year old, single architect. Marie is married to Kristoffer; it’s a second marriage, and Olea, his daughter with his first wife (the marriage that didn’t work out), is somewhat resentfully in tow. Ida, who has had a string of bad relationships (and I’m using the word ‘relationships’ here loosely) has decided that life is passing her by. She made the decision to have her eggs frozen, and she plans to deliver the big news sometime during the holiday. But her sister Marie, who has had innumerable miscarriages, has big news of her own.
Grown Ups, a bitter tale of sibling rivalry, is touted as funny. If it was funny, then the humour was lost on me. Over the course of this short novel, moments in Ida’s life are illuminated with bitterness as Marie, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, seem to always manage to upstage Ida’s big moments. In Ida’s mind, Marie has everything–the better life, a stepchild, a man, and the lion’s share of her mother’s concern. All the things that somehow pass Ida by seem easy for Marie to achieve, and the holiday, in this small enclosed space, brings out the worst in Ida. To Ida, everyone’s else’s life seems dynamic and better than hers, other lives are in a state of flux while her life stays the same: empty.
I can’t think about myself as ending up one way or another, as if everything’s over and done with, nothing is over and done with, you have to tell yourself that the best if yet to come, but at times I think that’s how Stein and Martha and Kristoffer see me. They don’t know anything, I think to myself, I’ve got a plan, I’ve got a secret. I make up my mind to tell Martha now, not to wait until this evening, I can tell her now, I’m going to freeze my eggs in Sweden, she’ll look at me wide-eyed and say wow.
Of course, it’s easy to see that Marie has struggles of her own: serious health issues, a stepdaughter who resents her, and a husband who is not a happy camper.
One of the most interesting characters here is Stein, the mother’s boyfriend. As an outsider, he pays attention to behaviours that the others are so used to, they mostly ignore. The fact that even the mother has a boyfriend, seems to add to Ida’s feelings of inadequacy, so when Ida sees the chinks in Marie’s seemingly picture perfect life, she goes for the jugular. Ida and Marie are locked in childhood rivalry, and it’s rather sad to think that perhaps we never get beyond our childhood selves. I liked Grown Ups in spite of the fact that for this reader, the book is a bit of a downer. Ida has a lot to be proud of, but she’s mired in comparisons to her workmates, and even worse, her sister.
Translated by Rosie Hedger