In the opening scene of Marianne Banks’ first novel, Growing Up Delicious (Bella), the protagonist, Jennifer Andersen, admits something we’ve all felt one time or another: “The problem was I looked grown up but felt twelve years old.” The occasion for this insight? The imminent return to her hometown following the unexpected suicide of her estranged mother. It has been over 20 years since she last set foot in her hometown of Delicious, and for good reason. Yet, despite dealing with plenty of serious issues—being disowned, alcoholism, suicide, growing up gay in a small, God-fearing town—Growing Up Delicious is funny. And it’s laugh-out-loud funny, not because it tries to be, but because it is an astutely observed social commentary on small-town life and the lesbian experience. Banks captures it all with a light touch and a heavy dose of humor.
Delicious, a fictional Western Massachusetts town, may be “Home of the Biggest, Bestest Apples in Massachusetts”, but it is also the small-minded town that Jennifer left over 20 years ago. A lot has happened since Jennifer tried to drown the Pastor of “Fry-Your-Ass Federated Church” during her former-lover’s wedding ceremony—Jennifer has relocated to Northampton, where she has spent years in therapy and created a happy home with her steady and loving partner, Estelle—but not much has changed in Delicious. When Jennifer rolls into the one gas station in town, the owner, Auntie Potts, remembers the brand of cigarettes that Jennifer used to smoke. The town center looks the same, the people remain the same; Delicious is a town full of ghosts with the requisite memories to prove it.
Growing Up Delicious keeps a quick pace, moving the story from present to past and back to present relatively seamlessly. Though the plot unfolds over a just a few days, the memories of Jennifer’s childhood and teenage years give the story a wider breadth. Through flashbacks, Banks allows the characters to fill in the blanks of the life Jennifer left behind. The narration occasionally shifts from Jennifer’s perspective to other characters’—Herlick, the funeral director; Auntie Potts; Jennifer’s sister, Dorothy; the neighbor across the street, Mrs. Lewkowski—and the minor characters are distinct and engaging enough for this device to work, each providing unique and amusing insights. Banks has a deft touch when it comes to character development and the observations of the minor characters add as much verve and humor to the story as Jennifer does herself.
All this isn’t to say that the story exists only inside the characters’ heads. There is quite a lot of action and a lot of mystery in Growing Up Delicious. The short chapters move the reader on quickly as the layers of the plot are peeled back. The book is riddled with secrets, and in some ways, Jennifer is forced into becoming a detective about her own past and family history. The secrets she uncovers are hard, the sort of subject matter that in other hands would lend itself to a far more maudlin plot line. But Banks keeps her comic touch throughout, and winds the story to a dramatic climax before finding the calm that follows the storm.
Estelle, when she appears at the midpoint of the novel, proves to be the grounding presence in Jennifer’s life and in the story—her appearance in the midst of the craziness of Delicious provides grounding and wisdom (but don’t worry, she’s still got her own funny quirks). Late in the book, there’s a meta-fiction moment when Estelle says, “If this were a mystery novel we’d only be two-thirds along. And it would be impossible to put the book down.” Estelle is spot on: Growing Up Delicious is impossible to put down.