Novel "The Adults" reminiscent of Salinger's style

By Carolyn Williams

Staff Writer

Alison Espach’s “The Adults” represents yet another take on the ever-popular coming-of-age story. Set primarily in Fairfield County, Conn., it centers on the confusing and dramatic adolescence and young adulthood of Emily Vidal, whose sharp narration carries the novel throughout the twists and turns of her unusual life.

“The Adults” opens at a seemingly innocent cocktail party, hosted on the Vidal family patio in the mid-1990s, celebrating the 50th birthday of Emily’s father. Things seem normal for perhaps one page, but 15-year-old Emily reveals almost immediately that appearances are not always what they seem. Not only is Emily’s father taking a job in Prague, she and her childhood friends stumble upon him feeling up the Vidal’s next-door neighbor, who happens to be the mother of Emily’s longtime crush.

Next, the Vidal parents announce their impending divorce just as Emily’s first semester of high school begins. Struggling with upheaval at home and the cruel politics of the high school microcosm, Emily attempts to blend into the crowd of “the other girls,” all of whom are rail-thin and confident in both their bodies and their standing with the opposite sex. As her mother sinks into a post-divorce depression, Emily attempts to bring her back to life with new interior designs. She has trouble, however, separating her mother from her persistent glass of wine (an expensive bouquet, courtesy of alimony). Meanwhile, Emily inadvertently witnesses the suicide of the cuckolded neighbor and is informed that his widow is carrying her father’s lovechild. Throw in a relationship with her handsome young English teacher and the soap opera of Emily’s high school years still isn’t entirely mapped out.

Since Salinger’s seminal “The Catcher in the Rye” changed the rules of the coming-of-age novel in 1951, it seems nearly impossible for any writer to attempt the genre without being held up to the template of Holden Caulfield. Unfortunately, Emily Vidal, though an adept social observer and an undeniably entertaining narrator, does not measure up to her esteemed competition. American writers and their native audiences seem particularly enchanted with the genre, and perhaps “The Adults” might have stood a better chance without such great recent works as C. D. Payne’s “Youth in Revolt” or Victor Lodato’s “Mathilda Savitch” distracting from its legitimate merits.

Emily definitely speaks in a distinguishing voice, but the book might have worked better had Espach restrained herself to Emily’s high school years. Instead, she tells the story in uncomfortably irregular fits and starts, jumping over college almost entirely to get to young adulthood in Europe. Perhaps, in trying to make her heroine worthy of positive comparison to the infamous Holden, Espach goes a little too far, only failing to reinvent a genre as Salinger once did.

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