Review by Laura Marriott, 26 March 2020
We start at a dinner party. If you groan inwardly at the very thought of a family dinner party then you are on the same page as Johnny Casey. The oldest of the three Casey brothers, all talented and good looking with impressive wives, he is turning 49 and powerhouse wife Jessie is throwing him a birthday party – whether he wants one or not. And frankly he would rather be somewhere else. And it seems like he isn’t the only one. There is tension in the air. All families operate on a system of withholding and blurring information and the Caseys are no different. That is until sweet, homely Cara suddenly starts spilling secrets to life altering effect.
After the prologue we find the Caseys six months earlier, spending Easter in Kerry. The extended family always get together for important calendar dates, all of it organised by Jessie who with her own successful business has the cash to splash and she wants to spend it on bringing the family together. They visit the finest hotels, go to boutique festivals, and drink the best wine. It gradually becomes clear though that all is not so smooth. Over time relationships mature and develop, with some growing closer and others splintering like firewood. This is a cast of early middle aged characters and their families and they weave through life’s joys and pains until they all come together at the dinner party to end all dinner parties.
Grown Ups is about the most mature cast that Keyes has created yet with most of the key characters being in their 40s, and it is only through them that we are introduced to the younger members of the family. As a result of this they are dealing with issues such as how to keep a marriage going after ten years while lust, work, and children are constantly vying for attention. The Casey family is large and messy. From former sporting star Liam to safe and steady Cara with the young frustrated Ferdia thrown in for good measure. Grown Ups shows that Keyes has improved demonstrably in the way in which she portrays young people over the years and has gradually been able to master this in the same way she excels in older character portrayal and development. Between you and me, I (whisper it) enjoyed the adventures of this extended family perhaps more than her most popular family the Walshes.
One of my favourite characters is Nell. We meet her on a scorching summer day as she tries to hide from the heat in a supermarket freezer. A theatre set designer, she is 30 and lives the life of an impoverished artist. Her work means everything to her and is deeply fulfilling but unfortunately so much of it is unpaid. She has strong principles and ideas about how to help make the world a better place, which slowly influence her new family. It is through her that the Casey’s learn about what it means to be in direct provision in Ireland. Nell’s friends Perla, and her daughter Kassandra, are a breath of fresh air. Fully rounded and bursting with life, they break the stereotypes that most fiction draws on when describing asylum seekers, while also not shying away from the harshness of their day – to – day realities. Keyes has become increasingly political in her writing. 2017’s The Break included a storyline in which a young woman travelled to the UK for an abortion in the run up to Ireland’s Repeal the Eighth referendum. Grown Ups takes a more subtle approach when featuring topical politics. A storyline about period poverty is neatly integrated into the overall narrative and acts as a way of propelling the action forward without taking up so much space that it becomes the action.
In a similar way important points are bread crumbed throughout so that you only realise their significance later on. This is most pertinent in the multiple love stories that run through the novel. There is the young love (I can’t give away between who), growing slowly into something that is delicate, believable, and left me wanting to see this one to a happy ending. There is also the love of long married Ed and Cara. Their marriage is quiet, regular and perhaps a little dull, but secure and comforting – at least until Cara’s demons rise up to knock her life to pieces. Even though Cara’s story bookends the novel each character and family unit are given the space to grow in front of the reader’s eyes.
It is difficult to write a review like this without sounding too profusive when giving praise but this was genuinely one of the most enjoyable books that I have read for many months and had the rare distinction that at no point in time did I want to put it down. This is unusual enough but especially in a book that covers topics such as eating disorders, bereavement, resentment, parenthood and finances. Keyes’ light touch and knack for infusing even the hardest storylines with humour is evident here. It is important to note here that Grown Ups is funny, very funny and entertaining from the first to the last page.
This feels like her most grown up work, in the sense that she has grown as a writer. This is the first time she has written from multiple perspectives in third person, including male as well as female. This was one of those rare occasions when on coming to the last page I wanted there to be more. There is an ease to Grown Ups that makes each page flow and I do not think it is hyperbolic to say that this is her best novel to date. The multiple storylines are brought together at the close however as they are such entertaining company one can’t help but want to dip back into the characters’ lives to see how things progress.
 Direct Provision is a controversial system of providing accommodation and food to those awaiting the results of their asylum applications. It has been heavily criticised and described as being like a prison where the inmates have no release date. To learn more about direct provision and the campaign to bring it to an end visit https://nascireland.org/campaigns/asylum-process-direct-provision, https://www.thejournal.ie/video-of-ten-beds-in-direct-provision-room-not-staged-says-masi-4954682-Jan2020/, https://doras.org/direct-provision/.
 In 2018 Ireland voted in a referendum to decide whether to repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution which banned abortion in almost all cases, but in practice in all cases. The referendum was passed by a significant margin.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Marian Keyes, Grown Ups, (Michael Joseph,2020), 978-0718179748, 656 pp., hardback.