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Grown Ups review: Marian Keyes' charming novel provides devastating insight into human experience

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Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes

Writer Marian Keyes (Photo by Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images)

Writer Marian Keyes (Photo by Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Marian Keyes

They f*** you up, your mum and dad. But there’s often plenty of blame to be laid on siblings, too.

In her non-fiction work, novelist Marian Keyes has often written of the closeness between her own brothers and sisters, not to mention the various travails of her fictional Walsh family. Within a web of brothers, sisters, and their partners and children, there is a rich seam to mine.

And so we meet the Casey family. From the outset, they look a perfectly functional bunch. They met regularly, at beautiful boutique hotels for Easter, for the wedding anniversary of the Casey parents, Rose and Canice. They holiday together in Italy and celebrate each other’s birthday. A close bunch, with seemingly nowhere to hide.

There’s Johnny, whose alpha wife Jessie is the paragon of female perfection. Despite the can-do attitude of his wife, Johnny is jaded with life, work and family. As one of the employees in his wife’s successful grocery company, he is starting to feel the strain of being the beta.

Liam, roguish and charming, has broken up with his wife Paige and just married the endearing and hipsterish stage designer Nell. She has relatively less baggage than everyone else as a newcomer to the Casey family, and though she is still inherently good and kind, she is still in the familiar phase where she is trying to please and charm everyone.

A runner of international renown, Liam has enjoyed a comfortable existence and more privilege than you could shake a nanny’s wage packet at, yet he still feels hard done by and perennially judged; the black sheep of the family.

And there’s Ed and Cara. Ed thinks of himself as the family’s ordinary man, not least in comparison to dashing Johnny and magnetic Liam. Cara is a brilliantly able and diplomatic hotel manager who, at the outset of the tale, applies the same dedication and laser focus to other parts of her life as she does her work.

Her dinners, for instance are described as “winning at life” — no bread, no potatoes, no dessert. Like many other women, the low hum of bodily self-criticism is always buzzing away in the background, so much so that she barely notices it anymore. Yet her dysfunctional relationship with food is affecting her relationships more than she might care to admit.

After taking a knock to the head before arriving at a Johnny’s 49th birthday party, Cara finds herself spilling forth with some queasy home truths, not many of them welcome, at a family dinner table. The book starts with this explosive moment of revelation, and from there, we move backwards to see exactly how each person ended up where they are on that fateful evening.

At 642 pages, there’s enough meat in Grown Ups to make several novels, but as a book in its own right, Grown Ups is truly dense with ideas and substance. By now, it’s a Keyesian motif to use a glossily contemporaneous and familiar setting to usher in a Trojan horse full of heavier, perhaps uncomfortable subjects. There are immediately relatable scenarios. This is a warm-hearted and charming read. The conversations are breezy and readable. Yet before the reader knows it, they have just been given a thorough, devastating insight into the darker parts of the human experience.

To say that Keyes sugarcoats the realities of her characters is misleading.

Here, food addiction is treated with brilliant nuance and sensitivity. In fact, Cara’s experiences with food and her body are told in such a raw, truthful way, it’s easy to see how writing well about addiction has become one of Keyes’ strongest suits. The modern-day preoccupation with money and social standing, especially within a family unit, is turned over and over, too. Where Jessie is flaithulach and ostentatious (the result of being an only child who loves treating her family), Nell is a much simpler sort. Both have plenty to learn from the other, and in the end, they do.

In creating a breezy and entertaining read that tackles difficult topics, Keyes is most certainly not alone as a writer. But where many authors push their characters into various fates with a certain deus-ex-machina glee, one gets the impression that Keyes really cares for her creations. She knows them. She is rooting for them. She relays their misfortunes and their darker moments like a good friend sharing bad news.

It’s a simple thing, barely worth observing, but it does infuse each strand of Grown Ups with warmth. Even when the Caseys are being insufferable or obnoxious (and in one instance, a character truly shows their despicable side), Keyes is still on their side.

It takes a while for the reader to become familiar with so many characters and their circumstances (not to mention those of their children, including a thrillingly Gen-Z son, Ferdia, from Jessie’s first marriage).

But with 642 pages stretched out ahead, there’s plenty of time to find out who everyone is, and where everyone fits.

Secrets, deception, backstabbing, grief, keeping up appearances, fidelity, divorce, the particular closeness and oddness of family… it’s all here. They really do f*** you up, it would seem.

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