Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spinster by Kate Bolick

I was intrigued the first time I read a blurb about the new book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. As one of the 17% of American women who have never been married (as of 2012, according to the Pew Research Center), I cringe at the terms “spinster” and “old maid.” There does still seem to be more of a stigma attached to unmarried women of a certain age than to men in the same situation.

I’m not generally a big fan of memoirs but I had no trouble staying engaged by Spinster. And this is mostly a memoir, of her personal journey to adulthood. She spends a considerable amount of time giving historical details about five women she calls her “awakeners” – five women who have helped her make sense of herself. They are essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and poet Edna S. Vincent Millay. (I was a little surprised to find that none of her awakeners fits the classic definition of “spinster” – all married at least once.) Although the information on her awakeners was interesting, to me it was not particularly reflective on today’s unmarried woman.

Bolick is a good writer. Her mother died when she was 23, and she notes about her mother:

The literary critic in me resents her role in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers; few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May that my mother took her last breath. (p. 42)

But Bolick can come across as a bit whiney (poor her, all those great guys who want to marry her when she just doesn’t want to get married). For the most part her experience as an unmarried woman did not resonate with me. Her sexual experiences – lots of sex with lots of men, often with no emotional commitment – are outside my experience and indeed my comfort zone. For the most part, I did not feel she was speaking to my life as an unmarried woman in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The author is about 10 years younger than me, and I wonder if it’s the age difference. I’d be interested to know how single woman of her age respond to the book.

In the end, I did not feel I had much in common with Bolick. Instead, she reminded me of an old on-again, off-again boyfriend of 13 years, truly a “man who could not commit.” And maybe the author would find that satisfying – that in today’s U.S., she too has the right to be the one who can’t commit.

Although Spinster didn’t resonate with me as a fellow spinster, I did enjoy reading it and found it thought provoking. I recommend it to anyone (male or female) interested in life as a single adult, in feminist heroes, and in coming-of-age memoirs. I read a digital advance reading copy from netgalley.com. Spinster is scheduled to be published on April 21, 2015.

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