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BookBrowse Reviews The Adults by Caroline Hulse

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The Adults

by Caroline Hulse

The Adults by Caroline Hulse X
The Adults by Caroline Hulse
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2018, 368 pages

    Nov 2019, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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About this Book



Caroline Hulse's clever debut is a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family's misguided attempt at civility over the holidays.

Things have already fallen apart on the first page of The Adults. The novel opens with an emergency call - someone has been shot in an archery accident. It's just a small taste of the chaos to come in Caroline Hulse's debut novel.

Divorced parents Matt and Claire have decided to have Christmas together with their seven-year-old Scarlett, and they bring along their new partners, Alex (Matt's girlfriend) and Patrick (Claire's boyfriend). They claim they can be "adults" about the awkward arrangement, but these assertions of emotional maturity come crashing down in the ensuing personal dramas. Each character is brimming with flaws. Matt is a man-child. Patrick is vain. Alex overthinks things. Claire likes to be in control. From the opening pages, readers are invited to look at all of these people with a critical eye. No one escapes scrutiny, and no one comes away the hero. Much of the book revolves around the nuances of Matt and Claire's relationship, both when they were married and now that they are divorced. Hulse heightens the reader's uncertainty by keeping Matt and Claire at a distance; readers only see the divorced couple through the eyes of other characters. Alex, Patrick, and Scarlett, the three narrators, all have various ideas about how Matt and Claire feel about one another, and the reader must piece together the truth through these accounts. Each perspective piles on new relationship nuances, and questions posed in one character's point of view may be answered for the reader through another character. Since the reader is privy to several characters' inner thoughts and memories, even the smallest conversation can prove significant.

The Adults is a comedy of manners, but it's also a mystery. After the initial emergency call, the novel unravels how the characters got to that moment. In addition to three rotating narrators, Hulse uses narrative framing devices to further develop the emotional tension. Cheerful excerpts of text from brochures for Happy Forest camping park, the British campground where the novel takes place, are juxtaposed with police interviews with other camp guests. Both are placed between chapters to break up the narrative and provide some exterior perspective in an otherwise inward, emotional drama. While this book fits into the dark comedy genre, I rarely found myself laughing. Instead, the novel's strength lies in capturing anxiety-inducing misunderstandings between characters.

While these characters (particularly Alex and Patrick) are complex and sympathetic, Hulse almost makes them too unlikable. Perhaps this is a personal bias, but I couldn't see why either Alex or Claire had ever fallen for Matt. It's obvious within the first few pages that he's immature (in a way that isn't even really depicted as fun) and a slob. There are moments where he inspires compassion, particularly as he seems to really enjoy spending time with Scarlett; despite that, I never felt that I was on his side. Alex and Patrick both had plenty of flaws, but I was able to overlook those more easily than Matt's because of the additional depth afforded to them through their points of view.

The interpersonal strain keeps the plot moving along efficiently until the very end, which I found abrupt and overly optimistic. It wasn't satisfying, partly because, except for Alex, I really wanted the characters to feel repercussions for their actions. That's not a particularly charitable feeling, but then again, even though it takes place at Christmas, the book is not exactly full of cheer.

Despite my concern about tone, I truly enjoyed the book. It is a great drama about the collision of old and new loves, and the characters are memorable and entertaining. If you're already getting nervous about the tumult of the upcoming holidays, consider losing yourself in the fictional chaos of The Adults.

Reviewed by Adrienne Pisch

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2019, and has been updated for the November 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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