The Grown Ups by Robin Antalek
Publisher: William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Source: ARC for Tour from Edelweiss
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From Robin Antalek, author of The Summer We Fell Apart, comes an evocative and emotionally resonant coming-of-age novel involving three friends who explore what it means to be happy, what it means to grow up, and the difficulties in doing both together. Spanning over a decade, and told in alternating voices, The Grown Ups explores the indelible bonds between friends and family and the challenges that threaten to divide them. It is the addictive and moving story of these old friends who wind up confronting their past in order to find happiness in their adult lives that make this novel an anticipated winter release.
Sam Turner, the summer he turns 15, feels lucky enough to enjoy the unexpected attention of his friend Suzie Epstein, even though it’s only a few secret months. For reasons Sam doesn’t entirely understand—and will never question—the budding relationship is kept hidden from their close circle of friends. But before their summer tans can even start to fade, Sam’s world unexpectedly shatters twice: Suzie’s parents are moving away to save their marriage, and his own mother has suddenly left the house, leaving Sam’s father alone to raise two sons.
Watching as her parents’ marital troubles escalate, Suzie Epstein takes on the responsibility of raising her two younger brothers while simultaneously planning an early escape to college to seek independence. Though she occasionally thinks of Sam, it’s her oldest friend Bella Spade she finds herself missing. Embarrassed by the destructive wake of her parents as they left the only place Suzie could call home, Suzie makes no attempt to reconnect with the one person she needs. Its years later that a chance meeting with Sam’s older brother Michael will reunite her with both Sam and Bella—finally forcing her to confront her friends, her past and what she left behind.
After losing Suzie, Bella surprisingly finds her first real love in Sam. But his inability to commit to her or even his own future eventually drives them apart. Watching Suzie and Michael as they seem to have worked it all out, Bella’s only to wonder where she went wrong and how to make it right.
It's been a while since a story put me through the emotional gambit quite like The Grown Ups. At times I was left mixed up, hurting, but in this kind of wonderful way. This story just made me feel everything—from the warmth of love curling low in your belly to the hollowed-out insides of despair and flush of anger. While I can't claim my life really looks like any of these characters', there's a stark honesty to the way Antalek portrays the inter-weaving of their development that feels impossible to not relate to in some small way, at the very least. You will relive those awkward, terrible times of thinking you understood the world and your place in it, only to have that belief dashed over and over again. It's difficult to make it through at times for that very reasoning—a visceral recalling of all of the moments of failed bravado and having to accept that no one ever really knows what will happen in life.
As far as the characters go, I was immediately drawn to Sam. I don't know if it's as simple as the fact that his was the first perspective shared or some more complex thread connecting us, but I often found myself falling into his feelings. The way Suzie treated him kept me irrationally angry at her for far longer than I should've been and I really didn't know who I wanted him to find his way to in the end between her and Bella. At times I resented his brother, Michael, for being the golden child that everyone wanted, just as Sam seemed to. So while I enjoyed parts of all three narratives, it was Sam's that really pulled me in, for reasons I won't delve to far into for now.
Throughout the entirety of the story, most of the moments that really stood out were nothing short of poetic. Antalek crafts prose that a some points has a flow so present that you have expect to see it in some stanza-ed format. I'd never read any of her books before, but it was certainly one of my absolute favorite parts. Because those lilting passages seemed to follow the path of the emotions behind them, only to be felt all the more intensely. It's possible I'm getting a tad over-dramatic, but that's how it felt for me. Sure, that effect may not be present for everyone. But for me it was something pretty damn special.
With all of that said, there were a couple of struggles. For one, I had trouble keeping the timeline straight on more than one occasion because of the narrative switching and time jumps. Honestly, though, once I sopped worrying about it and just kind of decided I'd more or less figure out where we were, that frustration disappeared. Secondly, some portions of the narrative seemed to drag a bit. Then, upon reflection, I didn't even care, because they chronicled those points in time where you feel at a standstill and like nothing is happening to you, but the world just keeps on turning. And within this particular story, with these particular players, those times really needed to be acknowledged.
Overall, The Grown Ups is everything you would expect from a coming-of-age novel: full of emotion, the fumbles we make, and just everything else that is life. For me, this book represents some of the very best of what these types of stories have to offer. So if you're a fan of such chronicling tales, I highly recommend giving it a chance. Even the times that seemed to drag packed the kind of punch that only comes from recognizing yourself and our own life in the pieces of a character's. This book offers the kind of kinship and acknowledgment of all the twists and turns we go through so you feel just a little bit less alone at the end. And there's just something so incredible about it.
Excerpt from The Grown Ups
It began as simply as that, friends who had known each other since they were in diapers. Sam made her happy. Just the sight of him as his cheeks flushed a deep shade of red was all it took. She wanted to kiss him and she knew that he probably wanted to kiss her too. Later, when they had all stumbled from Peter’s basement, wandering through the streets of their neighborhood to the high school, Sam had bumped up against her shoulder and she had found his hand down by his side and grabbed hold of his fingers. He wound them through hers and hadn’t let go, and right then in that moment she had been so sure of everything she had ever wanted.
Since her mother’s funeral, Bella had been stuck on that memory, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was only the ache of nostalgia. She wanted to lie in bed alone and go over every minute she had spent in Sam’s arms. But then she had noticed the way her mother was looking at her and instead she had crawled into bed with her and whispered about Sam. The mustard light in the room was diffused by the angle of the bathroom door, and she caught a glimpse of her mother’s face in the shadows. She was smiling but there was also something sad in her expression.
Robin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart. Her nonfiction writing has been published in literary journals and in several collections, including The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, and Literary Mama among others. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.