Andrea Bern, the 39-year-old protagonist of All Grown Up, is single, childless, and has never been married. In other words, she's exactly the kind of woman that doesn't get much love in literature. "I feel like you see [this type of character] more in nonfiction as a thing to be reported," author Jami Attenberg tells Bustle. "I just wanted to see this fully realized person that was confident in her desires."
Andrea, is, indeed more than her singleness, though sometimes even she has difficulty accepting that. The novel centers upon the nebulous idea of adulthood — what does it mean to be an adult? And why is society's idea of being grown up so tied to not being single? Andrea ponders this question as the world around her begins to shift: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother, somehow unscathed by their traumatic childhood, and sister-in-law are having a baby; and her friend, Matthew, is single-mindedly devoted to his art. But when Andrea's niece is born with a heartbreaking ailment, she and her family are forced to reexamine what truly matters. And Andrea must confront her decision to live life on her own terms.
For Attenberg, there's one passage that serves as a thesis statement for the entire book:
thesis statement from the new novel. pic.twitter.com/5zSIxZG82K— jami attenberg (@jamiattenberg) April 9, 2016
"Why is the question of this woman, of this character, always about her romantic life?" she says. "Isn't she more than that?"
She adds: "There's a lot of things in [Andrea's] life that she's not sure about but that is one thing that she is certain about: that she isn't interested in getting married, or having kids, or that kind of conventional, traditional lifestyle."
As Andrea navigates adulthood, she asks herself what it means to be grown when a partner and kids are out of the question, but more importantly, she asks herself to examine what it means to be happy. "I don't know anyone who has the answers to those questions," Attenberg says. "I know small things that make me happy, right? Like on a daily basis. I love walking my dog, I love going to the cafe and getting a coffee. I love reading books. And all of these things together can create a nice day for me, or can sort of maintain a happier level because of it. I guess the question is: what do I really need to be accomplishing with me life in order to make me happy? I think everybody is asking that question."
For Andrea, a true joy can be found in food. "There's a line in there about... how she's slept with all these men and she can't remember their name, but she takes food really seriously," Attenberg says. "I remember writing that and being like, that is super important. That is a super defining characteristic of the character: she really just loves eating. You know, she's a decadent character. She likes pleasure. "
Attenberg, too, loves food, and she especially loves writing about food. "Every book, the food that I write has to taste good," she says. "That would be sacrilegious to me — to have a bad-tasting meal in my work."
"But I can have a bad sex scene, for sure," she adds.
Another huge presence in Andrea's life is art. She went to art school, but now works at a corporate job, and throughout the book we watch her struggle to maintain a relationship with her art. Attenberg drew a connection between Andrea's relationship with her art and the importance of writing in her own life. "I've also met a lot of people in my life who wished... that they had followed a different path in their life. And, there's nothing wrong with the path that they followed, but they sort of get wistful about it. And I feel like that was always like a cautionary tale for me," she says. "I never wanted to be wistful about not trying to be a writer."
Attenberg hopes that All Grown Up will provide readers with a bit of an escape, especially in this harsh political climate. "My intention behind the book was just to write something that people would gobble up, and it would take them away from their lives for a while," she says. "Books make people feel better. They do."