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The Adults

The Adults

3.3 28
by Alison Espach

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Now available in paperback, “Tom Perrotta meets Curtis Sittenfeld in this razor-sharp debut by Alison Espach, who weaves a wry, devastatingly perceptive coming-of-age tale set in Connecticut’s affluent suburbs” (Marie Claire).

In her ruefully funny and wickedly perceptive debut novel, Alison Espach deftly dissects matters of


Now available in paperback, “Tom Perrotta meets Curtis Sittenfeld in this razor-sharp debut by Alison Espach, who weaves a wry, devastatingly perceptive coming-of-age tale set in Connecticut’s affluent suburbs” (Marie Claire).

In her ruefully funny and wickedly perceptive debut novel, Alison Espach deftly dissects matters of the heart and captures the lives of children and adults as they come to terms with life, death, and love.
At the center of this affluent suburban universe is Emily Vidal, a smart and snarky teenager, who gets involved in a suspect relationship with one of the adults after witnessing a suicide in her neighborhood. Among the cast of unforgettable characters is Emily’s father, whose fiftieth birthday party has the adults descending upon the Vidal’s patio; her mother, who has orchestrated the elaborate party even though she and her husband are getting a divorce; and an assortment of eccentric neighbors, high school teachers, and teenagers who teem with anxiety and sexuality and an unbridled desire to be noticed, and ultimately loved.

An irresistible chronicle of a modern young woman’s struggle to grow up, The Adults lays bare—in perfect pitch—a world where an adult and a child can so dangerously be mistaken for the same exact thing.

Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
Although The Adults is quite a good novel, it is easily underestimated. On the surface this is the coming-of-age story of a disaffected girl in wealthy, leafy Connecticut, and please, please try not to start yawning. The book is better than its title. Its sweep is larger than might be expected, its fine-tuning more precise. And the girl, Emily Vidal, is a lot more interesting than the sum of her spoiled suburban parts.
—The New York Times
Alex Kuczynski
Emily may sometimes sound like an imperious brat, but her narration never devolves into the kind of arch banter that passes for wit in many coming-of-age novels. She's refreshingly not a smart aleck. Rather, she's alert to her world and dismayed by the notion of embracing adulthood—in part because she's about to be thrust into it far too soon.
—The New York Times Book Review
Lisa Zeidner
It's hard to be a teenager, but it's even harder for a writer to capture a teen's voice in fiction. The unnerving adolescent habit of being worldly-wise one second and clueless the next can sound like a lack of authorial control on the page—or, worse, coy and cloying…Alison Espach enters this thorny thicket with her first novel…and the good news is that she masters her teen's voice exceptionally well…The Adults is less a piece of cultural anthropology than a jaunty tone poem about the indeterminate years of young adulthood.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In Espach's charming coming-of-age debut, 14-year-old Emily Vidal's life begins to veer off course at her father's 50th birthday party when he announces that he and her mother are divorcing. The birthday night ends with dad kissing the neighbor, Mrs. Resnick, in the woods, where Emily and Mrs. Resnick's son, Mark, discover them. The disorienting discoveries continue: Mark's ailing father commits suicide, and Mrs. Resnick is pregnant with Emily's dad's baby. With dad off to Prague and her mother undone by the affair and hitting the bottle, Emily loses faith in all the adults around her, even as she is becoming one of them. Emily starts an affair with an English teacher 10 years her senior, mostly to see how far she can go, which turns out to be pretty far. She and the teacher, Jonathan, who leaves teaching to become a lawyer, return to each other again and again as Emily graduates from college and moves to Prague to be with her father. Espach perfects the snarky, postironic deadpan of the 1990s and teenagers everywhere, and her ear for modern speech and eye for fresh detail transform a familiar story into an education in what it means to be a grown-up. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
On the Top 10 Fiction List for 2011. "[a] sincere debut...Tavia Gilbert’s narration adds candid poignancy to the story...Full of funny, wry, eccentric characters...recommended for fans of Cara Hoffman's So Much Pretty and Holly Goldberg Sloan's I'll Be There." - Library Journal
One of the Editor's Choice Top Adult & Youth Audiobooks of the Year (2011). Starred Review. "an engaging roller coaster of a listening experience. Gilbert is pitch-perfect in her delivery..." - Booklist
One of the 5 Best Books of 2011. "...excellent...Espach peppers the pages with supremely quotable lines and wonderful descriptions that make The Adults easily one of the best books of 2011." - The Long Island Press
"Narrator Tavia Gilbert deftly captures Emily's vulnerability, confusion, and wry analysis...Gilbert's unaffected presentation avoids sensationalizing Emily's rough language or the occasional description of a sexual encounter. Subtle shifts of tone are all Gilbert needs to give Emily a convincing voice..." - AudioFile Magazine
"…astute and funny…as idiosyncratic as it is stirring…" - The New York Times
One of the Discover Great New Writers Picks for Spring 2011. - Barnes and Noble
"[An] outstanding coming-of-age novel… one of the funniest books I've read in a long time." - Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"[Espach] masters her teen’s voice exceptionally well...aptly describes the protracted adolescence of the contemporary American child..." - The Washington Post
"...wry, darkly scintillating...a gem of a coming-of-age first novel. [Alison] Espach’s effortless perspicacity and blindsiding humor is compulsively readable." - LeahReader.com
"With shining prose and razor-sharp wit, Alison Espach writes about the murky landscape between childhood and adulthood, the mistakes and misunderstandings, the betrayals and the beauty. THE ADULTS is a piercing and authentic journey through adolescence, filled with squeamish missteps and laugh-out-loud insights, wrenching heartache, and characters so rich and tenderly drawn that one can't help but love them through all their flaws and failures. I absolutely adored this book." - Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals and Boys and Girls Like You and Me
"Every single sentence has tragicomic verve in The Adults. Alison Espach's coming-of-age novel is jaggedly funny, moving when you least expect it, and wise beyond its years. Parental guidance is strictly optional to enjoy this gem of a debut." - Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil
"Alison Espach has written her debut novel in one of the most authentic and memorable voices I have ever read. Finding myself on every page of this heartbreaking and hysterically funny book, I began to have the same strange suspicion I had the first time I read Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Yates's Revolutionary Road and Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides: the impossible belief that the author might have written this book specifically for me. Like those classics, The Adults is wholly original, astonishingly true, and absolutely vital. - Stefan Merrill Block, Author of The Story of Forgetting and The Storm at the Door

Library Journal
The teens in this novel mimic the worst behavior of the grownups, who pretty much ignore their children. Emily Vidal is a young teen trying to blend in with the mean girls in her suburban Connecticut town in the mid-1990s. In this high school hell, the kids act out, the teachers are ineffectual (one has sex with a 15-year-old girl), and there's parental infidelity and divorce at home. The novel's second half follows twentysomething Emily to New York and Prague. Although there's enough drama, there is too much inane dialog and not enough character development. Incidents such as a death or a suicide feel not so much integral to the plot as just something else for Emily to react to in her emotionally distant way. VERDICT Espach tries so hard to be edgy and ironic in this debut novel that it becomes more tedious than gripping. Not recommended.—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Kirkus Reviews

Like many teenagers, Emily Vidal believes her life sucks. That Emily is conscious of her own foibles gives this coming-of-age debut novel a measure of depth. And then there are Emily's sardonic observations of the wealthy denizens of suburban Connecticut.

The book opens with 14-year-old Emily at her father's 50th birthday party. The usual teenage snarkiness is checked when she discovers her father in a passionate embrace with Mrs. Resnick, the next-door neighbor. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Resnick commits suicide, a hanging Emily observes but cannot prevent. The situation grows more confusing when Mrs. Resnick turns up pregnant. Emily's parents divorce, her father follows his work to Prague and Emily is left with her detached mother and an overweening conception of her own maturity. Before she understands the sharp edges of passion, Emily finds herself, seduced and seducer, in a love affair with Mr. Basketball, her teacher, a dalliance that will continue intermittently over a decade. Emily conquers college, about which little is said, and then moves to Prague for graduate work in interior design. There she lives with her father, meets again with her lover and connects with her half sister. Next it's Brooklyn, where Emily finds a new love and begins her career, only to be confronted again by a guilt-ridden Mr. Basketball, now a widowed lawyer. The story weaves toward its conclusion when Emily's father returns to Connecticut ill with lung cancer. Espach's writing is literary and introspective, sometimes indulging in irony circling upon irony, but it's securely grounded in a sense of place. Even when the story moves to Prague, settings resonate with authenticity. With rare exceptions, the cast of characters, from fellow students to expats in Prague to the post-yuppies of Connecticut, are well-studied.

Wry rather than out-loud funny, laced with melancholy and angst, this book is an enviable first effort.

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
Simon & Schuster
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Adults

  • They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.

    My father’s fiftieth birthday party had just begun.

    It’s true that I was expecting something. I was fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of the getup, of my yellow fit-and-flare dress that cradled my hips and pointed my breasts due north, but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.

    The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, “Hello.”

    “Welcome to our lawn,” I said back, with a goofy grin, and none of them looked me in the eye because it was rude or something. I was too yellow, too embarrassing for everyone involved, and I inched closer to Mark Resnick, my neighbor, my maybe-one-day-boyfriend.

    I stood up straighter and overemphasized my consonants. There were certain ways you had to position and prepare your body for high school, and I was slowly catching on, but not fast enough. Every day, it seemed, I had to say good-bye to some part of myself; like last week at the beach, my best friend, Janice, in her new shoestring bikini, had looked down at my Adidas one-piece and said, “Emily, you don’t need a one-piece anymore. This isn’t a sporting event.” But it sort of was. You could win or lose at anything when you were fourteen, and Janice was keeping track of this. First person to say “cunt” in two different languages (Richard Trenton, girls’ bathroom, cunnus, kunta), an achievement that Ernest Bingley decried as invalid since “Old Norse doesn’t count as a language!” (Ernest Bingley, first person ever to cry while reading a poem aloud in English class, “Dulce et Decorum Est”). There were other competitions as well, competitions that had only losers, like who’s got the fattest ass (Annie Lars), the most cartoonish face (Kenneth Bentley), the most pubes (Janice Nicks).

    “As a child, I shaved the hair off my Barbies to feel prettier,” Janice had confessed earlier that morning at the beach.

    She sighed and wiped her brow as though it was the August heat that made her too honest, but Connecticut heat was disappointingly civil. So were our confessions.

    “That’s nothing,” I said. “As a child, I thought my breasts were tumors.” I whispered, afraid the adults could hear us.

    Janice wasn’t impressed.

    “Okay, as a child, I sat out in the sun and waited for my blood to evaporate,” I said. I admitted that, sometimes, I still believed blood could vanish like boiling water or a puddle in the middle of summer. But Janice was already halfway into her next confession, admitting that last night, she touched herself and thought of our middle school teacher Mr. Heller despite everything, even his mustache. “Which we can’t blame him for,” Janice said. “I thought of Mr. Heller’s hands and then waited, and then nothing. No orgasm.”

    “What’d you expect?” I said, shoving a peanut in my mouth. “He’s so old.”

    At the beach, the adults always sat ten feet behind our towels. We carefully measured the distance in footsteps. My mother and her friends wore floppy straw hats and reclined in chairs patterned with Rod Stewart’s face and neon ice cream cones and shouted, “Don’t stick your head under!” as Janice and I ran to the water’s edge to cool our feet. My mother said sticking your head in the Long Island Sound was like dipping your head in a bowl of cancer, to which I said, “You shouldn’t say ‘cancer’ so casually like that.” A woman who volunteered with my mother at Stamford Hospital, the only woman there who had not gotten a nose job from my neighbor Dr. Trenton, held her nose whenever she said “Long Island Sound” or “sewage,” as if there was no difference between the two things. But the more everybody talked about the contamination, the less I could see it; the farther I buried my body in the water, the more the adults seemed to be wrong about everything. It was water, more and more like water every time I tested it with my tongue.

    Our backyard was so full of tiger lilies, nearly every guest at the party got their own patch to stand near. Mark ran his hands over the orange flower heads, while my mother opened her arms to greet his mother, Mrs. Resnick.

    My mother and Mrs. Resnick had not spoken in months for no other reason than they were neighbors who did not realize they had not spoken in months.

    “Italians hug,” my mother said.

    “We’re Russian Jewish,” Mrs. Resnick said.

    “Oh, that’s dear,” my mother said, and looked at me. “Say hello, Emily.”

    “Hello,” I said.

    It was unknown how long it had been since they borrowed an egg from each other, but it didn’t even matter because my mother noticed how tall Mark had become. “Very tall,” my mother said.

    “Yes, isn’t he tall?” Mrs. Resnick asked.

    “How tall are you, Mark?” my mother asked.

    Everybody suspected he was taller than he used to be, but shorter than our town councilwoman, Mrs. Trenton, who was so tall she looked like King Kong in a belted pink party dress observing a mushroom garlic cream tart for the first time. She was so tall it only made sense she was granted a position of authority in our town, my mother said once. And Mark was a little bit shorter than that, in a very small, unnoticeable way.

    Most of the adults stood at the bar. Some reported flying in from Prague, Geneva, Moscow, and couldn’t believe the absurdity of international travel—it took so long to get from here to there, especially when all you were doing over the Atlantic was worrying about blood clots, feeling everything clumping and slowing and coming to an end. Some needed to use the bathroom. Some couldn’t believe how the roads were so wide here in Connecticut and, honestly, what did we need all that space for?

    “It’s presumptuous,” said Mrs. Resnick. She took a sip of her martini while a horsefly flew out of her armpit. “So much space and nothing to do but take care of it.”

    I looked around at the vastness of my yard. It was the size of two pools, and yet, we didn’t even have one. My mother had joked all summer long that if my father wanted to turn fifty, he would have to do the damn thing outside on the grass. We had all laughed around the dinner table, and with a knife in my fist, I shouted out, “Like the dog!”

    “If we had one . . . ,” my father said, correcting me.

    “It’s the nineties,” my mother added. “Backyards in Connecticut are just starting to come back in style.”

    But soon, it turned out it wasn’t a joke at all, and at any given moment my mother could be caught with a straight face saying things like, “We’ll need to get your father a tent in case of rain,” and after I hung up on Timmy’s Tent Rental, she started saying things like, “We’ll need three hundred and fifty forks,” and my father and I started exchanging secret glances, and when my mother saw him scribble THAT’S A LOT OF FORKS to me on a Post-it, she started looking at us blankly, like my father was the fridge and I was the microwave, saying, “We’ll need a theme.”

    “Man, aging dramatically!” I shouted at them across the marble kitchen counter.

    “And a cake designed to look like an investment banker.” She wrote it down on a list, her quick cursive more legible than my print.

    “No! A map of Europe!” I said. “And everybody has to eat their own country!”

    “No, Emily,” my mother said. “That’s not right either.”

    Everybody was invited. Was Alfred available? Alfred was our neighbor who always gave the comical speech about my father’s deep-seated character flaws at every social event that was primarily devoted to my father, which was every event my mother attended.

    “Like how he questions my choice of hat at seven thirty in the morning,” my mother said, as though my father wasn’t there pouring himself some cereal. “It’s just that the brim is so notably wide, he says. Well, that’s the point, Victor!”

    Or how he called the Prague office with a mouthful of Cocoa Puffs every morning and my mother said, Victor, you’re a millionaire, that’s gross, and my father chomped louder, said, it’s puffed rice. He just doesn’t get it, my mother said. He walks out to the car every morning and comes back in asking me how is it that a car can get so dirty!

    At some point, they always turned to me, the third party. “Emily, would you explain to your father?” my mother asked.

    “Well, Jesus, Victor! We drive it!” I shouted. I never considered the possibility that we weren’t joking.

    “Isn’t Emily so beautiful?” my mother asked Mrs. Resnick, twisting her gold tennis bracelet around her wrist.

    My mother asked this question everywhere we went. The grocery store. The mall. The dentist. Nobody had yet disagreed, though the opinion of the dentist was still pending.

    “Don’t you think that if the dentist really thinks I am beautiful he can notice it on his own?” I had asked my mother once, fed up with the prompt. “Don’t you think pointing it out to the dentist just points out how not beautiful I must be?”

    “It’s just a point of emphasis,” my mother had said. “It has nothing to do with you, Emily. Just a way into conversation.”

    “Adults need things like that,” my father sometimes added.

    But Mrs. Resnick hesitated, while Mark scratched a freckle on his arm like a scratch-n-sniff.

    Mother,” I said, and rolled my eyes so Mrs. Resnick and Mark understood that I too thought this question was unacceptable.

    Mrs. Resnick had a bad habit of never looking at me, so she tried to size up my entire existence using only her peripheral vision. Medium height. Dirty blondish brownish hair. Scraggly, mousy, darling little thing that apparently had no access to an iron or a bathtub.

    Hours before the party, my mother tugged at her panty hose, wiped her fingers across my cheeks, and said, “Go take a bath. You’ll come out smelling like the beach.” This was strange, since I just got home from the beach. And I never knew why smelling like the beach was always considered a good thing, especially when the closest beach was the Long Island Sound, and I wasn’t even allowed to stick my head under.

    “I don’t want to take a bath,” I said. “I don’t like baths.”

    “Everybody likes baths,” my mother said.

    I did not like baths. I understood the warm water felt nice against my skin, but after five minutes of sitting in the tub, it became painfully apparent that there wasn’t much to do in there. I would pass the time by shaving every inch of my skin, including my elbows, and reciting jingles I heard on the television—“Stanleyyy Steemmmmer,” and “Coca-Cola Classic, you’re the one!” When I would be older, one of my boyfriends would work as a flavor scientist for 7Up and would be addicted to bathing with me, his body on mine nearly every night, spilling water and secrets about the beverage industry, explaining that New Coke was an elaborate marketing scheme, designed to taste bad, predicted to fail, so they could reintroduce Coke as Coca-Cola Classic and make everyone want it more. “It worked,” he would say, filling my belly button with water as I sang. “Look at you, giving them free advertising in the tub.”

    “I’ve thought about it,” I had told my mother in the kitchen, “and I don’t want to smell like the beach. I’d much rather smell like something else, like a wildflower or a nest of honeybees.”

    “Emily,” my mother had said. “I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean.”

    I had explained that Mark, who was a junior lifeguard at Fairfield Beach, had found a box of dead kittens floating at the edge of the shore when he combed the sand before his shift was over. Mark said they were the saddest things he had ever seen, floating by a broken buoy, curled up like they were sleeping. “But they weren’t sleeping,” he had whispered in my ear. “I mean, they were dead.” I explained to my mother that smelling like the beach meant smelling like a place where tiny animals could not survive, where cardboard boxes contained not presents but sad corpses of beautiful things that were now impossible to love. My mother sighed and blended the garlic.

    *   *   *

    “Yes, very beautiful,” Mrs. Resnick finally said, and this settled all of us into a strange sort of ease. Mrs. Resnick straightened out the hem of her lime green dress, and my mother pointed out that my father had recently planted tiger lilies in our backyard. Did they go with the neighborhood décor?

    “This neighborhood has a very specific floral nature,” my mother said.

    Mark and his mother nodded. They already knew this.

    “Well, you kids be good,” my mother said, and stuck her fingers to my lips in a not very covert attempt to remove the Revlon. “And take some pictures, please.”

    That morning my mother had shoved a Polaroid camera in my face and said, “We need a party photographer! It could be you!” like it was a career move she might make me interview for. I snapped a picture of the two women walking away from us, our mothers, mine tall and alive in a coral party dress that was cut low enough to suggest breasts, and Mrs. Resnick walking next to her, rounder at the hips, in a lime green fabric with pearl embroidery so high on her chest it suggested that once upon a time, in a faraway land, there were these breasts. The skirt was cut at the calf, making her ankles look fatter than they should have. “Cankles,” Mark said in my ear. “Calves and ankles that are the same width.”

    My mother picked up two empty beer bottles and a dish of shrimp tails off the ground before making a full waltz back into the center of the party, Mrs. Resnick wiped her glasses clean with a napkin, and I thought, Those poor adults. Doomed to a life of filth, finding it everywhere they went. At the beach, the only thing my mother could see was the empty Fanta bottles, sandwich wrappers, Popsicle sticks littering the sea, and when the sun set over the water, Janice’s mother said it looked just like when she sorted through the garbage can with a flashlight after Janice threw out her retainer. My mother and Janice’s mother shared a big laugh and quickly grew hot in their chairs, dried out from Saltines and peanut butter and talking. They walked to the water but never went in, moving away from the waves like the mess was nothing but an accidental oil spill that would turn their toes black. Janice and I sat on the wet sand and rubbed the water up and down our newly shaved shins, while our mothers looked on, nervous about the way we were already abusing our bodies. They held up sunscreen bottles, rubbed cream on our noses. We fussed, squirmed, accused them of horrible crimes, threatened to wipe it all off in the water, stare straight into the sun until our corneas burned and our flesh flaked off, until we had taken in the worst of the Sound with our mouths. They sighed, tugged at our faces, threatened to bring us home, to end our lives right there! But I was never scared. I knew our lives were just beginning and that their lives were ending, and how strange it seems to me now that this was a form of leverage.

  • What People are Saying About This

    From the Publisher
    “Coming of age with a quick wit and a sharp eye…The Adults is as idiosyncratic as it is stirring.” -New York Times

    A “razor sharp debut novel…a wry, devastatingly funny coming-of-age tale.” —Marie Claire

    A “fierce, tender adolescent narrative.” –The New York Times Book Review

    “This cri de coeur carries a freshness and charm.” —San Francisco Chronicle

    Meet the Author

    Alison Espach is a graduate of the Washington University in St. Louis MFA program. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Five Chapters, Glamour and other magazines. She grew up in Connecticut and now teaches creative writing in New York.

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    The Adults 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
    dusltmom More than 1 year ago
    The Adults begins promisingly enough...the antics of "the adults" as seen through the eyes of a 14 year old girl. Unfortunately the author fails to continue with the premise and the book devolves into a sex novel. No romance...just sex. The author has the narrative jumping back and forth from the present to the past within the space of a page when she isn't wasting time making idiotic jokes. I kept putting the book down and asking myself why I was reading this nonsense. I skimmed through to the end just to see if it improved. It did not. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone.
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