AMAZING GRACE ADAMS, by Fran Littlewood
During one light-bulb moment in “Amazing Grace Adams,” the title character wonders which of her emotions are real and which are the fault of hormones gone awry. “It’s impossible to tell where the perimenopause stops and she begins,” writes Fran Littlewood, “and she’s asking herself who she would be if it wasn’t for those chemical enemies raging through her body, hijacking her mind, who she would be if her self had not come apart from her. She imagines she’d be nailing life, sailing through serenely.”
At this point in Littlewood’s debut Grace has laid waste to a pharmacy counter display, head-butted a groper on the London tube and used a stolen golf club to attack a stranger’s car. Suffice it to say, her hormones have a lot to answer for.
Grace is an accomplished linguist who speaks five languages. She was once a popular television personality — a “Polyglotty Hotty,” according to one headline — who introduced viewers to words like Torschlusspanik, roughly translated from German as “gate-shut panic,” or “that anxious, claustrophobic feeling that avenues and opportunities are shutting down.” Now, at 45, she finds doors slamming in every direction.
Grace’s husband has filed for divorce. She has lost both her uninspiring translating job and her “anything-to-get-her-out-of-the-house job” as an assistant French teacher. Her 15-year-old daughter feels increasingly out of control. And always there are those symptoms: the hot flashes, crying jags and bone-deep rage.
We meet Grace when she’s sitting and sweating in traffic — until, no longer able to bear it, she abandons her car and walks away. She is desperate to get to her teenager’s birthday party across town, hoping to make amends after a fight. Unfortunately, the whole city seems to have conspired to thwart her. As she makes her way, we jump back and forth from Grace’s no good, very bad day and the events in her past that have led to it. The effect is of a drawn-out anxiety dream, the kind where you have a flight to catch but can’t get to the airport, somehow don’t remember where you left your pants … and by the way, has anyone seen the baby?
On her acknowledgments page, Littlewood explains that the book is partly inspired by “Falling Down,” the 1993 movie featuring a mad-as-hell Michael Douglas. But Grace Adams is also the latest in a series of brilliant, beautiful and privileged protagonists (Amy Dunne, Bernadette Fox, Barbie) undone by the challenges of modern womanhood. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel tired,” she says, “and there’s this dread in me constantly because I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Littlewood taps effectively into the fear and confusion of parenting teens, the way a mother can spot an old karate belt in her child’s bedroom and suddenly picture it as a noose. An 11th-hour reveal — you may find it moving or manipulative — sheds light on Grace’s particular anxieties.
I may be proving the author’s point by noting that her central character can be hard to root for. She is not only flipping off the world (and you the reader, via the novel’s provocative cover image) but also representing the darkest self-hating thoughts of a certain demographic. She envies her daughter’s youth and mourns her own, harping on the “fleshy overhang that encircles her waist” and her face that is “sloping downward, like it’s given up.” While frank discussion of perimenopause is welcome, Grace’s tendency to blame jerk behavior on her middle-aged body is unlikely to lift any stigmas. Try as she might, there is no way to separate your hormones from your true self. It all goes into the soup of being a woman, a task as impossible and amazing at 15 as it is on the cusp of 50.
Sara Austin is the executive editor of Elle.
AMAZING GRACE ADAMS | By Fran Littlewood | 272 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $27.99