Fran Littlewood covers menopause and motherhood in gritty debut novel.

On the hottest day of the year, Grace Adams is finally seething. Abandoning her car in jammed traffic, not unlike Michael Douglas in the 1993 film To fall, except it’s north London instead of Los Angeles, and there are golf clubs instead of guns: Grace sets off on foot on a Leopold Bloom-like odyssey through the north of the city. Her mission is to deliver a fondant birthday cake to her 16-year-old daughter Lotte, who moved in with her father and no longer talks to her about her.

This is the premise for Amazing Grace Adams, a novel about a perimenopausal polyglot driven by anguish, anger, determination and love. It’s funny and relatable, written by ex-financial journalist Fran Littlewood, who recently turned 50 and also lives in north London with not one but three teenage daughters and her partner. The TV rights to the book have already been optioned since Easttown mare producer.

The portrayals in the novel reflect much of modern life: how menopause decimates women’s conditioned ability to suck things up, how women are viewed by patriarchy, the impact of digital life on adolescent girls, and co-parenting after separation . They all make an exit, albeit with sparkle and humor and pace; this is not a boring and serious read. Language features prominently: Grace’s superpower is that she’s a linguist, a former Carol Vorderman litterateur. Her other superpower is anger: when she is faced with the daily irritants of being a middle-aged woman, she fights back.

“A lot of women say that they feel seen by it, that it’s relatable, that it’s something you have no idea about when you’re sitting at the kitchen table writing it,” Fran Littlewood tells me over Zoom. “[Film director] Jane Campion talks about the idea that after 40 women become invisible and impossible to fuck – I felt my starting point was to refute this.

“I was so fed up with the lazy portrayals of women in middle age, I wanted to write about the women I knew as the interesting, nuanced, ambitious, funny people that they actually are. I wanted to write something raw, not vanilla, not sanitized.

Fran Littlewood: "I wanted to look at femininity at both ends of the spectrum"
Fran Littlewood: ‘I wanted to look at femininity at both ends of the spectrum’

What infuriates Littlewood — and the rest of us — is the double standard women are held to. Besides being at the bottom of life’s U-curve during midlife — aging parenting, grieving, dealing with teenagers, and simultaneously navigating our hormonal tsunamis, which until recently no one ever spoke out loud about — there’s it’s the weight of society’s false pressure to carry everything out with ease. We are given some respite.

“Grace is 45 but should look 25,” Littlewood says. “She should be a perfect mother, wife, friend, employee. It’s an impossible set up, yet we all feel like we’re failing. So I think there’s this slow boil of anger that we’re all living with. I liked the idea of
take a perimenopausal woman and make her into an action hero, and explore parenthood and motherhood especially with teenagers.

“I wanted to look at femininity at both ends of the spectrum and that awful clash of hormones. Her teenage daughter is going through a complete rewiring of her brain and herself, just as her middle-aged mother is. This rewiring in Grace heralds a return to a more authentic self, when you feel a little more fucked up about everything.

In the past, menopause and puberty didn’t usually happen simultaneously under one roof, but because we now have our babies later, the cauldron of hormones often boils over in tandem. Littlewood writes sensitively about the struggles faced by teenage girls navigating the romantic world for the first time (“You never forget your first heartbreak, how it consumes and humiliates and destroys you,” she says) and the sadness of parental emotional separation and son who arrives with adolescence.

“I wanted to explore loss,” she says. “Not just when they move away to go to college or whatever, but when they’re 13, 14, 15 and they’re away from you, and even if it’s part of the process and you don’t want it to not happen, it’s another kind of ambush. There’s a pain in losing a child in adulthood.There’s one more cataclysmic loss in the story, but of course no spoilers.

With her novel, Littlewood joined the anti-menopausal generation that has so far generally produced non-fiction about living with menopause: Mariella, Davina, Meg Mathews, etc. The character of Grace Adams takes the show on the road.

“It’s a day in a woman’s life,” Littlewood says. “So I had to include micro-aggressions through the lens of the violence against women and girls crisis. Cat-calling, sexual harassment, as a socio-political background of women’s lives. It’s no wonder we always have a low, hot anger, and yet you should soak it up and smile, or you’re a crazy bitch.

“However, there has been a real movement growing, which I think should give us hope, make us feel that it’s possible to start a conversation, try to create change while the taboo is being broken. I feel publicly, this is something new, but we need to keep it up, rather than say, “well, we’re past menopause, let’s move on.”

We are still in the discussion stage, rather than the systems change stage. Littlewood recounts how she broke her arm in her mid-40s, but when she suggested to her (male) orthopedic consultant that she was related to weakening bones in menopause, she was fired. Two years later she was diagnosed with osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis. “Everything I knew about my body was rejected out of hand,” she says. Never mind middle-aged female sexual invisibility, which can be a relief: it’s medical invisibility that really infuriates: and we live it and do it all with a smile.

Fran Littlewood
Fran Littlewood

Another recognizable aspect of the book is how co-parenting is presented as normal, as we get better at navigating child rearing after separation; the ex not as a villain, but as an ally. But Littlewood thinks that despite this normalization, “The narrative still remains that the blame lies with the mother, in terms of social conversation. The mother is still held to a higher standard. Even when things are becoming more level-headed, there’s still a sense that everything a man could do as a parent is a bonus, while everything a woman does is seen as a given.

But most recognizable of all — aside from the overwhelming fuck-this sensations — is the sense of helplessness as we watch our teenagers disappear down digital rabbit holes in the worlds we came from.
definitively excluded. And while creating their own worlds is what teenagers are supposed to be doing, it’s the digitization of these worlds that causes alarm.

“We had the television and telephone in the hallway,” Littlewood says. “Today there are all these devices to disappear into their bedrooms. You have no control, and it can be terrifying: social confrontation, 24/7 surveillance. I was interested in exploring the language of it all, because even though Grace is a linguist, she has a hard time figuring out what these truncated sentences mean. Algorithms are another thing: you could search for, say, a Japanese recipe, and then you’re on food sites, then weight loss sites, thinness sites.

“All these teenagers are searching for their new identity and trying to find out who they are, while being manipulated by a toxic environment over which they have no control. This era of extremely tough parenting – we’re going to look back on this time and be amazed at how much the Wild West is, how there’s no legislation governing it.

Littlewood believes the only way to negotiate this is to get your message in, educate and inform, and “they’re going to come the other way – that’s the basis.” As the mummy brain detaches, we may be able to step back and focus more not on the needs of others, but on those of ourselves. Meanwhile, he applies an HRT patch and tries not to kill anyone.

  • Amazing Grace Adams is published by Penguin

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *