Adult Fantasy: Searching for True Maturity in an Age of Mortgages, Marriages, and Other Adult Milestones by Briohny Doyle
Publishing Details: Scribe, July 2017
Back-of-the-Book Summary: “I pictured myself a wine-dark streak in a TV desert, ears too full of the summer wind to hear that ominous ticking in the sky: the sound of a cultural clock counting me out of youth.”
Briohny Doyle turned thirty without a clear idea of what her adult life should look like. The world she lived in, with its global economic uncertainty, political conservatism, and precarious employment conditions, didn’t match the one her parents grew up in. Every day she read editorials about how her millennial cohort—dubbed the ‘Peter Pan generation’—were reluctant to embrace the traditional markers of adulthood: a stable job, a house in the suburbs, a nuclear family.
But do these emblems of maturity mean the same thing today as they did thirty years ago? In a smart and spirited enquiry, Doyle examines whether millennials are redefining what it means to be an adult today. Blending personal essay and cultural critique, she ventures into the big claims of philosophy and the neon buzz of pop culture to ask: in a rapidly changing world, do the so-called adult milestones distract us from other measures of maturity?
When I first saw this book at a writing convention over a year ago, I immediately fell in love. I was in grad school for poetry of all things, married but not living with my husband, and generally felt like I was nowhere near adulthood, despite being nearly 24. When I saw the phrase “other measures of maturity,” I felt some hope that Doyle might reveal that I was actually more adult than I felt, and things might be okay.
What I Liked:
There are so many things to like about this book. Doyle’s voice, which is a captivating combination of earnest and intellectual, is probably my favorite. The book reads like a series of letters from your smartest friend, which is just objectively enjoyable to read. For me, books that are purely cultural criticism often get a little dry and self-righteous, but Doyle avoids this by mixing her cultural critique with absolutely wonderful portraits of herself. It’s hard to come off as self-righteous when you’re admitting to having a total breakdown in the months leading up to your thirtieth birthday. Doyle fully invites us into her world, and suddenly the discussion about what makes a “real” adult feels much more nuanced. It’s hard to see things in black and white when you’re faced with the vulnerabilities of a flesh and blood human being.
That leads me to the next aspect of the book I enjoyed: Doyle presents this conundrum of “adulthood” as both a personal and cultural problem. She acknowledges that there are things about her that may make her more prone to struggling with adulthood, but she also acknowledges that she is simply one in millions who are going through the same thing: trying to achieve adulthood when the milestones that mark it are becoming more and more unobtainable by the day. This combination of both personal and cultural factors makes it really easy for misinformation to spread and finger-pointing to take over reasonable discourse, because if you’re personally doing well and feel very “adult,” then you might be tempted to think that others are just as capable of doing so as well. If they don’t feel like adults or don’t reach those traditional milestones, then it must be a personal failing. If it were cultural, surely you would be in the same boat, right?
Doyle explains why that’s not always the case (usually various privileges, but also sometimes pure dumb luck) without throwing these people under the bus. Doyle is empathetic with everyone, refusing to simply blame older generations for the problems of our current generation, saying that even though it feels good, it usually isn’t very accurate and definitely isn’t helpful.
What I Disliked:
Obviously I don’t know Briohny Doyle, but based on Adult Fantasy, I think we have a lot in common, and not just because we both struggle with “adulthood.” Like me, Doyle is very obsessive and tends to fixate on problems and questions, especially ones that she has no power to really resolve. It’s like we think we can simply research the problem away. But in reality, this usually creates more problems and gets us stuck in an unproductive loop. There are several places in the book where it feels like Doyle could have pushed further, said more, but instead got sucked back into the obsessive loop, afraid to draw a conclusion or move on.
If this book were purely memoir, I might not mind this so much. After all, this is exactly how I think too, so I’d be used to the somewhat aimless, obsessive tone that avoids landing upon any exact answer. But because Adult Fantasy aims to explore our culture and come to conclusions about it, I expected a few more, well, conclusions. The back of the book mentions other measures of adulthood that Millennials might use rather than the traditional “marriage, house, kids” measurement, so I was looking forward to hearing what Doyle thinks Millennials are measuring their adult success by instead. But if she explores this, it is merely peppered throughout the book, rather than dedicating specific sections to it, which I found a bit disappointing.
Beyond the lack of actual conclusions, Doyle’s obsessive manner also makes the book a bit hard to decipher at times. Instead of feeling like it continually flows forward, there are parts of the book that feel like a whirlpool, leaving the reader a bit directionless. If form follows function, then this may be an intentional tactic to make the reader truly feel the dysfunction that Doyle is describing, but I didn’t find that approach very effective for this type of book. For a poem, absolutely, a work of fiction, perhaps, but a memoir/cultural critique? It simply adds an unnecessary layer of confusion.
You Might Like This Book If…
- …you’re an “adult” but don’t really feel like it
- …you don’t understand why there’s so much rage amongst the generations right now
- …you’re approaching 30 or some other age milestone and aren’t handling it super well and want to commiserate with someone who also didn’t handle it super well
- …you enjoy learning and thinking about the intersections of personal identity and cultural influences
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