A Closeted College Freshman Learns a Thing or Two About Adulthood

THE ADULT, by Bronwyn Fischer

Bronwyn Fischer’s debut, “The Adult,” charts 18-year-old Natalie’s freshman year in college in Toronto. On arrival, Natalie’s first disappointment is the trees behind her dormitory. Thinking at first that they indicate a forest — like the trees of her remote, rural hometown, Temagami, Ontario — Natalie looks closer to find that “they had been planted narrowly together,” a uniformity lacking in depth and wildness. This introduces a string of more familiar undergraduate disappointments: the disquiet of a small-town introvert away from her parents for the first time; tenuous friendships forged through icebreakers and drinking games; wondering how she has ended up in classes with names like “Material Religion” and “Nature Poetry.”

Despite its staging as a campus novel, most of the plot unfolds off campus in the home of Nora, an older woman with whom Natalie becomes romantically involved. Nora is one of the significant adults in Natalie’s new life, but there’s also a young woman named Jones, her poetry professor, and Paul, the imaginary older boyfriend she invents to avoid telling her college friends she is queer. She meets Nora while sitting on a park bench, trying to write a nature poem for class. Nora is flirtatious, insistent, knowing. Their ensuing romance soon crystallizes into domestic coupledom, as Natalie often cancels plans with her peers to be with Nora, and later evades the question of where she’s been.

Through Natalie’s subtle but vivid narration, Fischer powerfully evokes the all-consuming force of a relationship confined to a private universe. Natalie sees Nora as omnipotent, fantasizing that her lover’s voice is powerful enough to intercept a streetcar’s automated announcements. “I wished that I was also an action of her body,” Natalie thinks. “Something that one of her thoughts might control.” “The Adult” is delicate in navigating Nora and Natalie’s various imbalances — age, power, wealth, experience. As the novel progresses, and secrets from Nora’s past begin to destabilize the present, Natalie’s chronic doubt and second-guessing begin to seem less an adolescent insecurity, and more like blunt intuition.

While this brimming tension almost makes “The Adult” an understated thriller, the novel’s quieter intrigue exists in the articulation — or disarticulation — of the awakening of queer desire. Early on in her poetry class, Natalie is captivated by Jones’s evocation of an unbridgeable but fertile gap between life and language, worlds and words: in the professor’s words, “the difference between what we wish to express and what we are able to express.”

Natalie often seems ill at ease in language, but her queerness has made her a fast translator of a heteronormative world. While scouring the internet for advice about dating an older woman, she seamlessly transposes herself into the search results, which assume she is a young man; later, she imagines Nora as the “he” of an article titled, “32 Signs He Loves You Without Saying It.” When friends assume her secret lover is a man, Natalie’s spontaneous substitution of Nora with “Paul” seems to have less to do with her capacity to lie and more to do with the ways in which queerness is so often forced to exist at an oblique angle to heteronormative assumptions.

In this context, Jones’s poetry class becomes significant, prompting Natalie to question her received ways of looking at the world, and encouraging her to seek different articulations of herself in relation to her environment. Natalie watches a video interview with her professor, a well-known poet, in which she says that “historically, queer figures have used flowers as identity markers,” like Oscar Wilde’s green carnation, and that we can’t fully understand nature without understanding nonbinary states of being. Nora may be Natalie’s first adult partner, but the reader senses it’s also Jones’s class that pulls the protagonist toward something like adulthood. Toward the end of the novel, Natalie’s observations of the natural world — pink and purple flowers, her own shadow — point her to a queer ecology of possibility and potentiality: “I think, everywhere, there is a hint of who you are becoming.”

Daisy Lafarge is the author, most recently, of the novel “Paul,” and of the poetry collection “Life Without Air.”

THE ADULT | By Bronwyn Fischer | 305 pp. | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill | $27

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