All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Funny story about All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. I first came across it on Twitter, when a blogger had tweeted out the jacket with their review, and I was particularly taken with the jacket quote on the front, from Hadley Freeman. It simply stated ‘I’ve read about being a single woman.’ It truly delighted me, even when I (eventually) realised that Twitter had cut off the top of the jacket and the quote actually read ‘One of the smartest and truest novels I’ve read about being a single woman.’ Oh well. Certainly a way to get a girl’s attention.


There’s an excellent chapter in All Grown Up, very early on, in which the narrator Andrea talks about ‘a book’, that everyone she knows is determined that she read. ‘It is’, she notes wryly, ‘a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married… I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know.’ It’s a very dry and brilliantly funny chapter – but also I think, a deliberately well-placed one, as I was this close to recommending All Grown Up to a family friend in her 40s who is single, and now, I think I’ll hold off, or at least try and think of a more subtle way of pushing it in front of her. I suspect – hope! – I am not alone in this.

But either way, this chapter in some ways sets us up brilliantly for All Grown Up – a clever, funny, compelling book about being single and childless on the verge of forty, whilst all your friends are settling down. But even as she’s advised from all sides to ‘find someone and settle down,’ not only do very few suitable partners present themselves, but not many of her happily married friends appear to be finding life particularly straightforward either.

All Grown Up is written in the form of vignettes, covering Andrea’s borderline stalking of an actress who lives in her block of flats; the parenting strife faced by her brother and his lovely wife; Andrea’s struggle to get rid of a chaise-longue that her father may have died in. All are told simply and compellingly – and incredibly relatably. I’ve read a few reviews which describe Andrea as ‘selfish’, but I didn’t feel that was quite right – she just felt human to me. Her mind wanders when her friends pour out their hearts to her, she sulks when her mother moves away to be closer to her brother, she is outraged when her friend, the implausibly-named Indigo, thrusts her equally implausibly-named baby Ephraim (‘we looked into his eyes when he was born and he seemed one thousand years old already’) into her arms. But I’ve met more self-absorbed people…

Do yourself a favour, and put this short, clever, relatable but equally heartfelt and honest book about life, choice and women on your summer reading list. And if your bag’s already full, buy a new one. Huge thanks to the marvellous Drew Jerrison for this one.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg is out now, published by Serpent’s Tail.

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Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

I’ve had Love, Nina on my shelf for quite some time now, and last year, really enjoyed her debut novel Man at the Helm. After being quite taken with the first couple of episodes of Nick Hornby’s BBC adaptation (except for poor Alan Bennett’s portrayal – what a travesty!), it seemed a good moment to dig out the lovely-looking second hand paperback I’d acquired over a year ago.

love-nina

As I’m sure most of you will know, Love, Nina opens with twenty-year old Nina, having just moved down from Leicester, taking up a position as a nanny at the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Alan Bennett always popped in for tea, and Claire Tomalin, then literary editor of The Sunday Times lived just down the road. It was the 1980s ‘heart of literary London’.

There is a lot of fun to be had in reading Love, Nina. Sometimes it’s just the simple, slightly voyeuristic and slightly nerdy pleasure found in spotting the famous literati. Sometimes it’s Nina’s own blunt, not-quite-realising-she’s-being-rude way of telling it as it, or the fact that she initially thinks Alan Bennett might be off Corrie. And of course, who knew (other than those who know them…) that Mary-Kay Wilmers and her sons are so delightfully, yet cuttingly funny! I should probably have seen that one coming to be fair… Mary-Kay is a particular star of the book – unpredictable, and with a tone that varies between exasperation, as well as extreme tolerance. Alan Bennett isn’t given quite as much of a chance to shine – surely he does that by himself – but is revealed to be quite the handyman: fixing the fridge, bicycles, teaching them all the proper way to bash flower stems before putting them in a vase…and we also learn his curry recipe.

Only Nina’s letters to her sister Vic are published, which should feel jarring, but doesn’t, strangely. Nina doesn’t ask many questions of Vic; as Nina writes in the introduction, they were simply used to having ‘a nightly conflab’. They write for the rather touching pleasure of writing to one another.

Nina Stibbe clearly has a wonderful ear for dialogue. My long-suffering other half had to endure me reading quite a lot out to him – always greeted with polite chuckles. One of my favourites is

Me: What’s up?
Sam: It’s really bad. Tomalin’s wheelchair bumped into a moped and fell over and Tom fell out in the street and the moped fell on its side.
Me: Oh dear, was Tom OK?
Sam: Yeah I think so, he wasn’t hurt.
Me: Poor Tom. Poor you.
Will: Poor moped.

Fifteen minutes later.

Sam: Shall we go check on him?
Me: Tom?
Sam: Yeah, see if anyone’s helped him up.
Me: What? He’s still there?
Sam: Probably, maybe, I don’t know.
Me: What, you left him there?
Sam: Yeah, I came to get you.
Me: But, Sam, you’ve had a peanut butter sandwich.

Or generally any time Nina’s small falsehoods get caught out.

MK: (on phone) Have you nicked the Halliwell’s?
Me: No.
MK: The video card?

Me: No.
MK: What about the big stripy towel?
Me: No.
MK: The one with the green, blue and red stripes.
Me: No.
MK: I can see it in your room, right now, hanging on a chair.
Me: (pause) OK, I’ve got the towel but not the rest.

Love, Nina is a surprisingly, probably accidentally funny collection of letters. The affection she feels for the family shines off the page – and we can but wonder how they felt about her. A delightful, unforced and very pleasurable read.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe is published by Penguin.