Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood review – hell hath no fury

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Menopause has gone mainstream. From Davina McCall’s taboo-busting documentaries to Kirsten Miller’s thriller The Change, the code of silence is finally being broken. The topic is – dare I say it – hot. So hot that, last June, HarperCollins announced it was “actively looking” for stories that reflected women’s experiences and portrayed “menopausal women as smart, funny, powerful characters who are liberated, walk tall and fight back”.

Grace Adams is certainly a fighter. In the opening pages, the protagonist of Fran Littlewood’s debut novel is stuck in traffic gridlock in north London. It is a scorching summer’s day and Grace, in the grip of a hot flush, feels “on fire from the inside out”. She’s atrociously late and she’s pouring with sweat. Drivers are blaring their horns and the man in the next car is staring at her, and suddenly she can’t take it any longer. She gets out of her car and simply walks away.

If this feels reminiscent of another classic first scene, that’s because it is. In her acknowledgments, Littlewood cites as her inspiration Falling Down, the 1993 film starring Michael Douglas as a nameless man who, having lost his job, his wife and his children, bewildered and enraged by his plunge from proud respectability into impotent obsolescence, finally snaps, abandoning his car on a traffic-snarled LA freeway to go on a rampage through the city.

Like Falling Down, Amazing Grace Adams takes place over the course of a single, spectacularly bad day. And like Douglas’s character, 45-year-old Grace feels baffled and obsolete. Her husband has left her. Her adored daughter, Lotte, has opted to live with her father, refusing to see or speak to Grace. After months of sick days and missed deadlines, Grace has lost both of her jobs, as part-time French teacher and translator of schlocky romances. Physically, too, she has become unrecognisable to herself. Trapped in perimenopause, she is a fug of hot flushes, full-body itchiness, brain fog and incontinent paroxysms of rage.

On the day she ditches her car, Grace is trying to get to Lotte’s 16th birthday party, from which she has been explicitly excluded. She has ordered a Love Island cake to take with her, hoping that the shared joke will heal the rift between them. But she is not quite in her right mind. As she makes her increasingly unhinged way across north London, she encounters the usual roll call of misogynist microaggressions: patronising shop assistants, aggressive drivers, lairy builders instructing her to smile because it might never happen. Except this time Grace means to make sure it does.

The bestseller lists have recently played host to some fabulously flawed and self-sabotaging midlife heroines: think of the acerbic Martha in Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss or indomitable Elizabeth Zott in Bonnie Garmus’s megahit Lessons in Chemistry. Littlewood’s publishers are doubtless hoping that Grace Adams will take her place alongside them.

Certainly, Amazing Grace Adams has some lovely moments. The novel is studded with flashbacks that gradually reveal Grace’s story, and the early days of her relationship with her husband, Ben, are evoked with a beguiling mix of tenderness and humour. Their first encounter, at the geeky Polyglot of the Year 2002 competition, is a particular delight. Littlewood is strong on the mother-daughter dynamic, too, skilfully capturing the fierce push-pull between Grace and the recalcitrant Lotte.

Where the novel falters is in its narrative spine: Grace’s increasingly frenzied march across London, which unfolds at a hectic pitch somewhere between a fever dream and a Twitter pile-on. In Falling Down, the protagonist’s violent spree is presented as not only unlawful but misguided; acts of revenge unjustly wreaked on innocent bystanders. In the end, his rage is also impotent: it changes nothing. By contrast, Grace’s rampage is presented as a liberation, two fingers up to anyone who thinks menopausal women have no purpose or agency, and more fundamentally as the foundation for a fresh beginning. There is little humour in these sections, and less kindness. Grace smashes up a shop display. She breaks one man’s headlights with a golf club and head-butts another in the face.

It slowly becomes clear that Grace’s unravelling owes as much to the trauma of the past as it does to her perimenopausal present. But for most of the novel Littlewood appears to assume something more troubling: that justification is superfluous and, because Grace is a woman, whatever she does, however irrational or disproportionate, other women will instinctively cheer her on. I agree that we need more stories of smart, funny, powerful menopausal women fighting back. If only Grace Adams were one of them.

Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood is published by Michael Joseph (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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