The Adults

A Novel

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About The Book

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.

Excerpt

The Adults 1
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.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Adults includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alison Espach. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

INTRODUCTION

Emily Marie Vidal stands at the epicenter of a bizarre suburban universe where neighbors commit suicide, high school teachers have affairs with their students, and someone needs to be lit on fire to stop an even more heinous act from occurring. These situations send her on a physical and emotional journey that will take her from suburban Connecticut to Prague to New York City and back to Connecticut in an effort to find happiness, solace, and even love.

The Adults chronicles Emily’s coming-of-age in a modern world where an adult and a child can so dangerously be mistaken for the same thing.  


TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION


  1. The opening scene of The Adults is a garden party celebrating Victor Vidal’s fiftieth birthday party. Discuss your first impressions of Emily’s parents and friends. How does Emily struggle to identify with the people around her?

  2. How do Emily’s parents break the news of their divorce to her? How does she react? Why does Emily comment, “I was positive I had no family at all, certain it was not my mother but the solar wind which carried me into the universe.” (p.19) How does Emily’s relationship with her parents change over the course of the book? 

  3. Emily is frustrated with her parents’ and friends’ lack of communication.  Do you agree with fourteen-year-old Emily that, “Nobody ever knew how to talk about anything”? (p. 25) Do you think her perception changes by the end of the book?

     
  4. Emily’s mother would “often use her youth as leverage to win arguments, something I didn’t realize was even possible since it was youth that was always my handicap.” (p. 27) Do you believe that Emily’s youth is a handicap?  Discuss this in context of her ongoing relationship with Mr. Basketball.  How did her youth affect the eventual outcome of the relationship? 

  5. Mark Resnick and Emily Vidal are both neighbors and good friends.  They are together when they see Mrs. Resnick and Mr. Vidal kissing in the woods.  What are their reactions?  How does this discovery impact their relationship? Why do you think the author chose to bring Mark back at the very end of the book? 

  6. Discuss Emily’s belief that, “fathers were men who were just trying to understand, while mothers were women who were trying to change us…” (p. 61)

  7. Emily’s father, Mr. Vidal, admits to his wife that Mrs. Resnick is pregnant with his child. What incident sets off the confession?  How does her mother react?  When does the “truth” about Laura finally come out?

  8. Mr. Basketball suggests that Emily will one day appreciate being self-awareness, as it is a gift. Is this true? Does Emily ever recognize the value of her “gift”?

  9. Consider the relationship between Esther and Laura. Why does Emily believe Esther was threatened by Laura? What does Laura represent? 

  10. Emily remarks that Prague changed dramatically after the flood.  She remarks: “life had been a certain way ‘before the flood’.  Nothing’s been the same ‘since the flood’…” (p. 227) Was there a “flood” in Emily’s own life that changed her? Explain your answer.

  11. Do you think Emily will ever truly be happy? Or is she stuck in the self-fulfilling prophecy of it being “impossible to be happy anywhere.” (p. 236) What do you think would make her happy? 

  12. What prevents Emily from telling Laura the truth about her parents? Should she ever tell her? Why did Emily’s father decide to live a lie all of these years?

  13. How does the passing of Emily’s father affect her and her mother? Do you think Emily’s mother ever stopped loving her father? Does the experience of her father’s death make Emily an “adult” or is she still the same child she always was?

 ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
  1. Have some interesting high school experiences to share? Pick a night to swap favorite stories with your book club.

  2. When Emily travels to Prague, she provides some background and history about the city. Pick a favorite city you have visited and research some interesting facts to share with your book club!

  3. Emily begins working as an interior designer for wealthy socialites and celebrities, including Woody Allen. Which celebrity or socialite’s house would you like to remodel?  Discuss your decorating ideas at your next book club meeting.

A CONVERSATION WITH ALISON ESPACH

The Adults is your debut into the literary world.  What is it like being a first-time author?

Publishing a novel has been a dream of mine basically since I learned to read.  My mother actually gave me a manual when I was in elementary school that she took out from the library called “How to Make Your Own Novel” (if anyone is curious, two pieces of cardboard, a hole puncher, and a ball of yarn).  I took the craft very seriously.  I would steal my brother’s history reports and write fictional accounts of whatever historical event he happened to be writing on, turning the male heroes into female heroes, fabricating love that never existed between historical figures, and then binding the two pages together with yarn.  So, in this way, I’ve felt like an author my whole life, but never really considered myself an author in such a public way.  It’s wonderful and scary to think of my writing as something that potentially exists beyond me and my computer screen.  Not to mention, Scribner binds the books much better.
 

What was the inspiration behind The Adults?

I am the kind of writer who is often inspired by one single line, meaning, I could write an entire novel based off something I heard on the subway.  So, in that way, it’s hard to pin down an exact inspiration for The Adults, but I suppose the most obvious inspiration is the point of view I developed growing up as the youngest in a family.  Not just in my immediate family of five, but my extended family as well.   When I was ten I had cousins who were turning thirty.  So the children who were supposed to be my peers were in fact “The Adults ” with jobs and salaries and lawnmowers and mortgages.   I always had this eerie feeling of being born into an already-formed family.  Like I was the last to show up at the party, and I arrived completely sober.  I was exposed to things I normally wouldn’t have been exposed to as a first-born.  For instance, when my brother was ten, he had a bed-time that corresponded with an actual number, and when I was ten, my bed-time was loosely founded on the concept of “whenever I fell asleep.”  We stayed up late watching television that I probably shouldn’t have been watching, shows such as 90210 or Baywatch (it didn’t occur to me until I was older that we were watching the shows for very different reasons – I just thought they were really good shows).  At family gatherings, I often sat at the “adult” table because sometimes there were not enough children to make up an entire table.   I spent a lot of time listening to the conversations of more mature people whose immediate and long-term concerns were very different from mine (perhaps one of the larger differences being that as a child I didn’t have any long-term concerns other than remaining alive).  So the perspective of “the witness” has always been of interest to me, particularly the witness who listens and sees but doesn’t quite understand. 

 
Emily has, to the say the least, an interesting high school experience.  What was your experience like? Which group did you fall into? Were you someone who was “always saying the wrong thing, and then laughing too hard afterward”? (p. 89) 

Half-way through high school, I fell into a small tightly-knit group of girls who were more or less considered Not Cool, and who are still my friends today.  We lived our lives very much outside of the social scene of high school.  We went to one party.  We were ridiculous. We were oppressively theatrical, and spent most of our time talking in the hypothetical.  

Maybe this will explain how not cool we were: we seriously wanted to be secret agents, as in, FBI agents, so we made identification cards, and created secret code names, and then continued to hold stakeouts on the various streets of our town, addressing each other only by our new names, looking for I'm not sure what, anything, two people making out would have been more than enough.   

In terms of the novel, I don’t think Janice would have hung out with us.

But before I found those friends, high school was mostly unbearable.  Every day, I always said the wrong thing, which was why freshman year of high school, I thought it was best not to say much at all.  I wasn’t big on raising my hand.  My brother, who was supposed to have been a senior, had died the year before I went to high school in a car accident that involved boys who were seniors to my freshman.  So there were a lot of eyes on me as I entered, and a lot of eyes darting away as well.  I felt like I was going through something extreme and sudden that particular year, and it was mostly The Adults , the teachers and guidance counselors, who understood this.  They were constantly checking in on me to address the changes in my life, whereas most of the students casually knew me as the sister of the boy-who-died-last year.   I was very distant from the people of my age group, and that was the year I spent more time looking at myself rather than being myself.

Unlike Emily, and most of my friends, I was actually a big athlete in high school.  My friends joke that being an athlete allowed me to be Fringe Cool, where as they were still Not Cool.  Because a high school sports team is often a mixed bag of people, I sometimes by accident got invited to places where cool people got invited too.   I noticed some of the cool girls were not as horrible as I had predicted they would be.  Sometimes they were really hilarious, and smart and nice, and it made sense why they were universally adored by the student body.  But, of course, some of them were not so hilarious and not so nice, and it was obvious they had established dominance through the use of fear.  And because I had found a tightly-knit group of girls who took pretty good care of each other, coupled with the fact that I was tragically sensitive in high school, it seemed that attempting popularity was too unpredictable, and in the aftermath of my brother’s death, I valued comfort and intimacy over adoration from the masses.  Saying the wrong thing in front of a bunch of girls who have been decreed cooler than you by the rest of the student body can sometimes bring about a silence that haunts, forever.  But when you say the wrong thing in front of people who genuinely seem to enjoy and care about your existence, they’ll laugh, and if they don’t, they’ll forgive you, and eventually, for me, that horrible high school feeling of always saying the wrong thing faded away.

Do you share Emily’s viewpoint that adults are “constantly auditioning”? If so, what do you think we are auditioning for? Do you agree that being an adult is “horrible,” while being a child is “awful”? Where is the happy medium?

If you consider an audition the time and space in which a person tries out for the role they want in a performance they want to be in, I think that yes, adults are constantly auditioning.  In the way that “auditioning” equates to the act of proving yourself qualified for something you want.  We go on interviews for the positions we want to secure in our professional lives, we go on dates until we have convincingly or unconvincingly presented ourselves as desirable life partners.  We participate in class so we can get good grades to show colleges that we are good enough to deserve a degree that will get us an interview for a job that will prove how qualified we are for a potential spouse, etc.  

And I don’t necessarily think this kind of auditioning is a “horrible” thing, though there are surely moments when it can feel horrible.  If I was completely comfortable all the time and not held accountable for my behavior I would be in trouble, I think.  I might teach my classes in sweatpants.   It’s healthy to feel the pressure of having to prove yourself.  The auditioning becomes “horrible” when you are not qualified for the role, when you are not suited to be a certain person’s girlfriend, or to have a particular job.  If you are deserving of the role you want, then it is easier and more natural to play the part.  When the role is fun, and it’s a role you believe in, I think that’s when we are happy.  Of course, it’s also important to make time for the moments when you are not responsible for conversation, or making anyone laugh, to step off the stage so to speak, and experience the peace and joys of being alone and unobserved.

Between her relationship with Mr. Basketball and caring for her mother, Emily did not have the life of a typical teenager. Do you think she grew up too fast? What are the dangers of doing so? How would you respond to critics who question your main character having an “illegal” relationship? 

The Adults is first and foremost a fictional story.  It’s not a manual on how to live or what choices a young girl should or should not make.  The novel contains the choices Emily made, and the story is the realization of the consequences and motivations of those specific choices.  I don’t see why it should be questioned any more than all of the other illegal things that have been explored in fiction over the centuries. 

As far as Emily growing up too fast, or too slow, I’m not sure how to answer that.  I think the idea that there is a way to “grow up too fast” or “too slow” is somewhat absurd.    Different things happen to people at different points in their lives, and to say that there is a proper speed in which one should move through the world seems confusing and hard to measure.

But, of course where there are fourteen year olds who want to do the things twenty-six year olds do, and vice versa, there are dangers.   It is dangerous for a young woman to be in over her head, thinking she has complete control over a situation where it is likely she doesn’t.  And there is definitely a danger in thinking salvation comes with age, such as wishing your childhood away, or ultimately, disappointment.  But I believe there are equal dangers in keeping a child sheltered for too long.  There is a danger in children not experiencing things, not learning lessons.  Children who feel invincible.  Children who don’t act with the amount of maturity that is expected of them.  Children who are told one thing at home and then go to school and are forced to memorize all of the symptoms and ways they can contract syphilis.   Children who think bus drivers and lunch ladies are cartoons, and then pick up the paper to find that their bus driver was arrested for writing love letters in her blood to a student.  The world is confusing.  And I think it’s okay to address it as such.   And I don’t think that in a novel, illegal or legal needs to correspond to right or wrong.  A novel is a place to explore something fully, in all of its rightness and wrongness.

 
Your fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s and other journals. Did The Adults start as a shorter story or was it always meant to be a novel? 

Most of my longer work starts off as a short story, because I get overwhelmed if I think of the big picture, the novel, all at once.  There is precision in short stories that I’m attracted to.  So one of my goals in writing The Adults was to try and write the chapters and sections in the spirit of short stories.

 
Emily handles some serious issues throughout the course of The Adults—infidelity, divorce, and death, to name a few. Yet she manages to keep a sense of humor throughout it all.  How important is it to keep a sense of humor during those dark times? Why did you decide to infuse so many characters with humorous responses to bad situations? 

I will read anything if it makes me laugh, and so it’s strange that I don’t buy more comic fiction.  I get tired just buying a book that promises to make me hurt with laughter, because I hate the pressure that comes along with hilarity.  So while I’m interested in books with humor, I am more interested in humor that surprises me, or comes from an unexpected place. 

I don’t understand how people get through the dark times without laughing.  Honestly.  The day my brother died, I remember thinking, “Oh no, I’m never going to laugh again.”  I remember grieving the death of my brother and the death of humor itself.  Because what could be funny after that?  I remember sitting down and trying to imagine a situation in which I might laugh, but I couldn’t think of one.

Later that day, my best-friend came over and told me that a girl we knew told everybody I was a “bitch” for not inviting her over too.  At first I was hurt, because no fourteen year old enjoys being called a bitch.  Then, I was shocked someone would even say that about me on the very same day my brother died.  I prepared myself to cry, but my friend and I caught eyes and started laughing hysterically, perhaps because it broke the tension or because we both needed that moment of catharsis.  I am drawn to fiction because of unexpected moments like this.  I am interested in depicting the bursts of hilarity and happiness that come through during times of complete despair.  Life can be both funny and sad, and I like characters who understand that.  Nobody wants their life to be ruined, especially not by a parent’s divorce, or a teacher taking an interest in you sexually, and I like characters, and narrators, who can see the little ways that a life isn’t ruined.

You currently teach fiction, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, and composition at New York University. How has your work as a teacher helped to inform your writing? What is one piece of advice you would give to a budding writer? 

Teaching helped me gain a lot of control over my writing, and I understand more now about what I’m doing or trying to create, though of course depending on the day, and what I’m trying to write, that kind of control can be inspiring or paralyzing.  

My one piece of advice to a budding writer is to write what you want to write.  That piece of advice was given to me awhile back, and was what actually freed me to write The Adults .  Before The Adults  I was writing what I thought was “serious fiction,” and when I took a step back from the manuscript I realized that I thought “serious fiction” had to be mostly about men, abandoned landscapes and copper theft.  While there is plenty interesting about all three things, and another writer could have written that novel wonderfully, I couldn’t get past 90 pages.   Also, it turned out I knew very little about copper theft.
 

You paint very vivid images of the landscape and people of Prague. What type of research, if any, did you do for this book? 

I was in Prague for a month on a writing scholarship, and I was very affected by the place.  When I came home from Prague I started wondering who I would have become if I never went on that trip.   I feel very changed after I travel.  And that’s weird because I am not a very good tourist.  As a writer or a graduate student I never had the money to be a good tourist.  It took the extra money I had just to get to Prague.  And whenever I tried to sight-see or do anything I was “supposed to do,” I always failed somehow.   I’m not willing to wait in lines, or pay too many admission fees, or sight-see in the rain, and I also hate the pressure of having to feel impressed and awed by everything.  In Prague, I got stuck in the mindset of walking around and thinking, oh, okay, just another ancient church that took hundreds of years to build.  I spent a lot of time just writing and sitting in cafes and observing some of the less celebrated parts of Prague, exploring the feeling the place gave me. 

The one thing I wish I put more effort into seeing was the bone church (it was pouring the day I was supposed to go).  Though in a weird way if I actually saw it, I might not have written the novel I wrote.  The idea of a church made from bones was the strangest thing to me, and for some reason not seeing it made it even more of a mystery, and seemed to represent all of the remarkable things I will never see. 

Why did you choose Connecticut as the backdrop for The Adults? Do you think the story would have lost its message if it took place in another suburban locale?

The Unfuckables and Fuckables was a fictional exaggeration of that fact that in Connecticut, people find a way to form a group premised on the idea of anything, though I would not be surprised to find out the two groups existed.  There were so many different kinds of people, to the point where there would be traffic jams in the corners of our hallways, actual bumper to bumper traffic that made us awkward and late to classes, and then on the walk home from the bus, not a person in sight.  Everybody inside their house.  When nobody was outside playing sometimes the suburbs of Connecticut felt like the loneliest place, and I remember thinking how weird it was to feel alone because if all the houses fell down, I’d see people nearly twenty feet away.  An important part of the novel is Emily discovering that even though it doesn’t look like things are happening on her street, all kinds of things are happening everywhere, and a lot of them to her.  This kind of thing could take place in any setting I suppose, but for some reason, the suburbs of Connecticut seemed particularly spastic with how flooded the schools were with kids, and how empty the streets seemed at night.  

What’s next for you? Will we be hearing from Emily again?

I’m working on my second novel.  To say what it will be about is premature, but will you be hearing from Emily again?  Probably not.  Hopefully, she won’t be calling or texting anybody.

 

About The Author

Photograph by Caitlin Peluffo

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (September 2011)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439191866

Raves and Reviews

“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

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