Review: All Adults Here by Emma Straub

I really got into this book about three generations of a family in small-town Connecticut, though I felt let down by the ending, for reasons I’ll try to explain without saying too much.

The novel begins with Astrid, a widow, who sees a friend struck and killed by a speeding school bus.  Astrid is so shaken that she begins to reevaluate her life, particularly her secret relationship with a woman in town, and her difficult relationships with her three adult children.  She begins to see that while she tried to give her children freedom and space, the reality is that she wasn’t there for them at key moments in their lives. She resolves to be more honest and address past mistakes head on. 

Around the same time, Astrid takes in her 13-year-old granddaughter, Cecilia, who had trouble with bullying in her middle school. Cecilia is feeling betrayed by her friends and abandoned by her parents. She meets August, a transgender teen who identifies as Robin but hasn’t come out yet. 

I loved the complicated issues raised in this book about family relationships, friendships, and love. I could identify with Astrid and all three of her children. Astrid meant well as a parent but realizes she really doesn’t know how to relate to her children as adults. Cecelia and August’s stories got me choked up more than once. I liked the way Astrid needed to navigate her complicated feelings towards her dead husband, her partner, and her children. And I particularly identified with this portrayal of a family that doesn’t always like each other all that much. For example, the oldest son is a guy no one likes, nor do they like his wife or his two young sons.  Initially he feels a bit one-note but Straub does a nice job of drawing out his character so he becomes understandable and sympathetic (though I found the youngest son much less developed).

I appreciated the way the characters wrestled with parenting. They didn’t have perfect children or easy lives after having children. Their marital relationships struggled in some ways because of parenting. They had to question whether they were parenting too closely or not closely enough.  And I especially liked the way Astrid constantly questioned her relationships with her adult children, whether her perspectives on their childhoods were correct, and where she might have done lasting damage. 

But towards the end, there were things that really detracted from this book. (NOTE: if you’re like me and hate to know anything about how a book ends, feel free to stop reading here. But I’ll keep details to a minimum.)

The main issue I had was that the ending tried to resolve all the issues facing this family way too neatly, while leaving out some difficult issues entirely. There are people that love a tidy ending; I’m not one of them.  This book introduces a lot of serious issues that then disappear once everyone decides they like each other after all.  And the way Straub addresses both teens’ issues did not feel realistic at all, which really bothered me.

The second issue may not resonate with most readers, but lately, one of my pet peeves are books that focus way too much on having children. As an adult who has chosen not to have kids, I realize my perspective is not the norm, and I completely acknowledge that having children is something that affects the entire dynamics of your family. And of course you can’t have a multigenerational family saga without having babies and raising children. Still, there’s a line that sometimes that gets crossed for me, where I feel like a book is all about how everyone needs to have children and not about other, more complex family dynamics. I try to avoid books where characters don’t have meaningful lives in ways that are unrelated to parenting; and where not having children is only depicted as a negative. And this book crossed that line for me by the end, though it didn’t start out that way.

There were two things towards the end that particularly bothered me. One, I didn’t like the Porter storyline at the parade, which took a story that had mostly resolved itself and added a bunch of made-for-TV scenes to it. And I didn’t care for the chapter about Barbara at the end. For me these two parts felt tacked on and unnecessary to the plot. Plus, Barbara’s chapter left me feeling like everything about this book screamed “have children now or regret it forever”. I wish the book hadn’t left me feeling that way. 

I think Straub tries to tackle too many interesting storylines and leaves many of them superficial or left hanging, like the stories about the two brothers. I would have loved more focus on Astrid and Cecilia and more complexity in the way their issues were dealt with.

  6 comments for “Review: All Adults Here by Emma Straub

  1. October 30, 2020 at 10:56 am

    Hi – I’d like to read this. I read The Vacationers and really liked it. I’m like you in that I don’t like a tidy ending. I like to think about the characters afterwards and wonder what happened.Thanks for the review 🙂

    • November 1, 2020 at 4:23 pm

      I hope you enjoy this book, and I’m glad to hear you liked The Vacationers, which I haven’t read. Thanks for commenting!

  2. October 31, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    I didn’t read the spoilers, thanks for hiding them behind the button. This sounds like an interesting, challenging book. I tend to like multi-generational family dramas, and this one has some interesting angles to it. I think writers often struggle with endings. It has happened to me often where I’ll like a novel but really not like how it ended. Ending right is an art.

    • November 1, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      I agree – I give credit to this one because I really liked most of it, and I know the conclusion will work better for some people than others. I’d be curious to know if some of the things that bothered me came from the book’s editor, or it may just be Straub’s writing style (as I haven’t read any of her other books).

  3. November 22, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    Hm, I thought this sounded really good but then the bits at the end told me I would probably get annoyed with it. Childless not by choice over here and I don’t like having it drummed into me that I therefore have no value! I also don’t like over-neat endings, especially in a book with lots of characters and issues. So thank you for your nuanced review!

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