Reading Guide: Adult Onset
From the acclaimed, bestselling author of two beloved classics, Fall On Your Kneesand The Way the Crow FliesAdult Onset is a powerful drama that makes vividly real the pressures of life and love, and the undercurrents that run deep through even the most devoted families.
     Mary Rose MacKinnon--nicknamed MR or "Mister"--is a successful author who has opted to put aside her career in her 40s and devote herself to her young family. She lives in a comfortable urban neighbourhood with her partner, a busy theatre director, and their two children, trying valiantly and often hilariously to balance the demands of (mostly) solo parenting with the needs of her relentlessly spry but elderly parents. As a child, she suffered from an illness, long since cured and "filed separately" in her mind. But as domestic frustrations mount, she experiences a flare-up of forgotten symptoms which compel her to rethink her own childhood. Over the course of one outwardly ordinary week, Mister's world threatens to unravel, as the spectre of violence raises its head with dangerous implications for her and her children. Crafted with humour and unerring emotional accuracy, Adult Onset is a contemporary tale by turns searing and uplifting.

Reading Guide

Discussion

1. Did you feel a connection to Mary Rose (MR) and her plight even if your own life is very different? If you are a parent, what elements of her experience, her struggle, the absurdities, could you most relate to?

2. On the surface Mary Rose is living a charmed life: she is a doting mother taking a break from her career as a successful writer, she is in a loving relationship—and she knows where the IKEA Allen key is. But the façade of perfection is tenuous. Under the surface, Mary Rose is ostensibly waiting for tragedy to strike, perhaps even the “midlife cancer disaster that was stalking [her] generation.” Are her quirky anxieties red herrings for a more serious issue? Is she overly critical of herself? Can you relate to her neuroses? Discuss.

3. What did you think of Kitty McRae? Where does she fit in versus Mary Rose’s “real” life?

4. What did you think of the structure of the book? Was a week enough time to spend with Mary Rose to fully understand the emotional upheaval stirring beneath the tedium of her daily life? If you spent another week with Mary Rose and her family, what do you think would unfold? Is she headed towards another breakdown? Discuss.

5. Mary Rose’s wife Hilary talks her off the ledge a lot, and for the week the narrative takes place their relationship seem less of a partnership, more dependent. What pushes Mary Rose to test her relationship with Hilary?

6. Mary Rose’s “remembered pain” leads her to spend a lot of time rooting around in and questioning her memories, seeking out the supposed crux and truth behind her physical and emotional pain, and mental strife. How reliable are our memories, especially when they aren’t shared and are taken out of context? How much do you think Dolly’s talking about “dead babies” could be affecting Mary Rose’s state of mind? Examine the connection between Mary Rose’s past trauma and the anxiety that permeates her present life. 

7. What is Mary Rose’s biggest fear? 

8. “Your parents lived to adulthood before you came along and are thus equipped to recognize themselves in a world without you. But you have never known a world without them” (p. 208). Most people see their parents, and even their childhoods in a different light when they become parents themselves, and there is a natural evolution of the relationship between parent and child. How is Mary Rose different as an adult child than she is as a parent? In their own ways, both Dolly and Mary Rose are pushed to the brink. Examine and compare their experiences of motherhood.

9. How does Mary Rose ultimately reconcile her mother’s actions/parenting skills? 

10. Mary Rose repeats the mantra that she is a “nice mother” throughout the book. She is perpetually doubting her parenting skills, struggling with anger management and worrying about whether or not she is a fit mother. What does it mean to be a fit mother? What constitutes abuse?

11. Were you shocked by Duncan and Dolly’s reaction to Mary Rose’s coming out? Have you ever experienced exile within your own family?

12. What do you think stopped Duncan from intervening on behalf of Mary Rose when Dolly repeatedly denigrated their daughter in the immediate aftermath of her coming out? Why do you think he behaved this way, considering the relative closeness of their relationship otherwise?

13. Can you forgive what you forget? Do you think Mary Rose possesses a healthy ability to move on or does she ignore reality? “Love is blind, forgiveness is blind in one eye.” (p. 370)

14. This is MacDonald’s third novel and while it is the most autobiographical, she has drawn from her own life experience in all three. Do you see any thematic similarities between Fall on Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies and Adult Onset? Adult Onset is the first book MacDonald has written as a parent, do you think there is a noticeable difference in her writing style? What do you think of her take on this particular time of life?