Grown Ups by Marian Keyes – one big happy family?

Marian Keyes shows superb skill at tackling tough themes in this tale of a clan with secrets

The Caseys are a sprawling Irish family who gather at every possible opportunity: anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. Brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam seem close in spite of their different personalities, while their wives – Jessie, Cara and Nell – appear to get along well. But beneath the surface, resentments fester and when Cara attends a family dinner after suffering from concussion, secrets emerge that threaten to expose the weakness of the threads that bind them.

Over the past 20 years, Marian Keyes has built a reputation for breezy fiction that also tackles difficult and, at times, controversial subjects, and Grown Ups is no exception. The key theme here is addiction in its various guises: to shopping, to food, to status and money. Jessie is the successful owner of a grocery company, employing her husband, Johnny, who works alongside her. Tensions become apparent: Johnny feels emasculated; Jessie suffers guilt about her superior financial position. Her ambivalent relationship with money is expressed in a needy compulsion to share her wealth with the wider family – generosity that borders on ostentation and yet signals a subtle attempt to control those around her, to position herself in the role of provider, while asserting her professional success.

At the beginning of the novel, Cara, a receptionist at an upmarket hotel, is told by a guest that she is “a fat bitch”. The insult is deeply felt, and Keyes skilfully peels back the layers of Cara’s insecurities about food, about her body, about the image she sees – and loathes – when she looks into the mirror. What follows is a sensitive, visceral depiction of Cara’s eating disorder: the binge eating, the purging, the secrecy and guilt. That Keyes manages to convey Cara’s experiences without either trivialising or overdramatising is testament to her dexterity.

This, ultimately, is where Keyes’s literary skill lies: in taking themes that in different hands might be rendered portentous or oppressive and making them accessible. Grown Ups is a warm-hearted, wise and highly entertaining portrayal of how families behave; of our tendency to idealise the notion of extended family gatherings, and of the love and tolerance required to sustain our closest relationships.

• Grown Ups by Marian Keyes is published by Michael Joseph (£20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Hannah Beckerman

The GuardianTramp

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