One-Minute Book Reviews

August 24, 2009

How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This post first appeared in 2007.

The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.

This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.

Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”

The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?

Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”

Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?

Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).

Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 20, 2009

Dr. Phil Admits, ‘I May Not Be the Sharpest Pencil in the Box’ in ‘Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Love Smart was one of 10 finalists in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest, which recognizes the year’s worst writing in books. Dr. Phil lost to Danielle Steel (grand-prize winner), Mitch Albom (first runner-up) and Claire Messud (second runner-up). This review appeared in February 2007.

Love Smart: Find the One You Want – Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Free Press, 283 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Help me, please, with the math in Dr. Phil McGraw’s relationship guide for women. First the talk-show host says that to attract a worthy man, you need to feel confident enough to take your “fair share of time in most conversations – 50 percent in a twosome, 33 percent in a threesome, and so forth.” Then he says that when you’re dating: “Self-disclosure should be used only 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent should be listening.” So which is it? Should you be talking 50 percent of the time or 25 percent?

I have no idea, because McGraw doesn’t say how he got those figures, and his book is full of mush like this. Love Smart is one of those self-help guides that has LOTS OF LARGE TYPE. It also has exclamation points! More than two dozen in the first seven pages! That doesn’t count the one in the first paragraph of the acknowledgments! But I’ll say this for McGraw: He is equally patronizing to women and men. He reduces them both 1950s stereotypes given a 21st-century gloss with advice on Internet dating and quotes from celebrities like Dave Barry and Rita Rudner.

Much of his advice retools the kind of messages Bridget Jones got from her mother. First, stop being so picky. Of course, McGraw doesn’t use that word. He urges you to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent.” Then forget what you may have heard from other experts about how there are more differences between any one man and woman than between the sexes as a whole.

“I’ve got news for you: Men and women are different,” McGraw says. A lot of men have a “caveman” mentality that requires a “bag’em, tag’em, bring’em home” approach. This method includes more of the kind of advice your mother – or maybe grandmother – gave you. McGraw doesn’t come right out and say you should “save yourself for your husband.” But he does suggest you hold sex “in reserve” until a man has made “the ultimate commitment”: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to McGraw that some women might not appreciate being compared to cows.

The most bizarre section of Love Smart consists of its list of the “top 31 places” to meet men. No. 1 and 2 on the list are “your church or temple” and “batting cages.” You might meet men at those batting cages. But the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that the typical American churchgoer is a 50-year old married female. So what are the criteria here? Sheer numbers of the other sex? Or compatibility with your values? The list makes no more sense than most of the other material in Love Smart. Earlier in the book, McGraw begins an account of a disagreement with his wife by saying, “Now I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box …” Why didn’t somebody tell Oprah?

Best line: The comedian Rita Rudner says, “To attract men I wear a perfume called New Car Interior.” Love Smart also has some zingers that women have used to insult men, such as, “He has delusions of adequacy.”

Worst line: McGraw never uses one cliché when he can use three or four, as in: “Now it seems time to step up and close the deal, get ‘the fish in the boat,’ walk down the aisle, tie the knot … you want to get to the next level.”

Editor: Dominick Anfuso

Published: December 2006

To read more about the Delete Key Awards, click on the “Delete Key Awards” tag at the top of this post or the “Delete Key Awards” category at right. To read more about the creator of the awards, click on “About Janice Harayda.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 5, 2009

You’re 40. He’s Left. Now What? Suzanne Finnamore’s ‘Split,’ a Memoir of Divorce, California-Style, With Chilean Merlot

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“A meteor of repressed anger” arose in the mother whose husband walked out

Split: A Memoir of Divorce. By Suzanne Finnamore. NAL, 272 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Suzanne Finnamore seems to have lost her way as a writer. A decade ago, she won deserved praise for the polished wit and taut plotting of her first novel, a romantic comedy about the impending wedding of a materialistic and self-absorbed 36-year-old bride in a part of northern California where the Chilean Merlot runs deep.

Can credit cards ease a divorce?

Otherwise Engaged made clear that Finnamore knew what was wrong with writing “as rich as Croesus,” “at this point in time,” “in the very final analysis,” and the many similar phrases that turn up in her latest book. Her new memoir of her divorce has the high-flying brand names and neuroses of her first novel, but the prose has turned cute and baggy.

Split suggests that Finnamore has begun to strip-mine her life for publication. At the age of 40, she may have gained new material when her husband walked out of their upscale northern-California home and began taking luxury vacations with a woman who soon became pregnant: The separation left her with a toddler, a mortgage, and “a meteor of repressed anger.”

But Finnamore skims over her pain in chapters so glib and short, she might have texted them to her publisher. In one scene, she goes a credit-card buying spree just when her income seems least certain. At warp speed, she spends $4,000 on more than a dozen frivolous items such as a “blond cardigan sweater with a detachable white mink collar” and a set of “blown-glass 14th-century French shoe reproduction Christmas ornaments.” She explains the binge by saying blithely that her purchases “have gotten me through this travesty” of a divorce. More alarmingly, she says that while smoking she set fire to “not one, not two, but five chenille throws”: “One mattress pad went down while I was on the phone to New York, as did two pillows and a luxury comforter.” Yes, divorce makes you crazy. But some of Finnamore’s behavior seems so reckless, you don’t know whether it results from the separation or from personality traits that were there all along.

Split is clearly not a how-to book, but what is it? Perhaps a coda to the “relationship autopsy” that a marriage counselor required Finnamore and her soon-to-be-ex husband to perform. The tone of Split resembles that of a breezy game of miniature golf the couple and their son played before the decree came through. “Even the pending divorce we just lightly reminisce over,” Finnamore writes, “as though it was a vacation to Fiji, where it rained.”

Best line: Finnamore’s son says while she is reading him a Christmas poem, “We’d better take Daddy’s stocking down, because he’s not going to be here tomorrow.” A rare poignant moment in a book long on wisecracks.

Worst line: Two categories here. Category No. 1: All of the clichés like those in the second paragraph of the review above. (“… it might, in the very final analysis, be some kind of elaborate prank.”) Category No. 2: All of the lines that make you wonder if Finnamore is exaggerating for comic effect or has a habit of self-destructive behavior that seems especially risky for someone who lives with a young child, such as her comment that she set fire to five chenille throws, apparently while smoking in bed.

Consider reading instead: Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion, 2001), a beautifully written account of the impact of divorce a mother of two boys, ages 3 and 5. Otherwise Engaged better introduces Finnamore’s writing.

Published: April 2009 (NAL paperback), 2008 (Dutton hardcover).

Editor: Trena Keating

Caveat lector: Finnamore says she’s changed “plenty of details and events” in Split. She also wrote the novel The Zygote Chronicles (Grove, 2003).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 23, 2009

She Promised Her Husband Sex Every Night for a Year for His 40th Birthday – But Her Book About It Left Out All the Good Parts

Filed under: How to,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Sex, but no sex

You know how I said the other day that I’d never heard of a book that Jonathan Yardley said “may well be the best baseball book ever”? Here’s another I’d missed: Charla Muller’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy (Berkley, 288 pp., $14, paperback), the #2 bestseller in the “Love & Romance” category on Amazon. It comes from a woman who promised her husband sex every night for a year for his 40th birthday, and if the comments on Amazon are right, Muller left out all the good parts. A reader-reviewer complained: “The author uses the premise to discuss almost everything except sex. There are almost no details about the sex-life of the author and her husband.” But Muller has started offering a free Bible study guide to the book.

February 14, 2009

‘A Relationship Is a Myth You Create With Each Other’ — A Valentine’s Day Quote of the Day (via New York Magazine)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“A relationship is a myth you create with each other. It isn’t necessarily true, but it’s meaningful.”

Philip Weiss quoted an unnamed man as saying this in “The Affairs of Men: The Trouble With Sex and Marriage,” a cover story in the May 26, 2008, issue of New York that dealt with the Eliot Spitzer-inspired question, “Is man really a monogamous animal?” I liked the quote when I read it in the spring — it makes a subtle point about relationships that I can’t recall having seen made elsewhere — but saved it for the appropriate day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 13, 2009

Valentine’s Day Poems for Straight or Gay Lovers, Including Couples Getting Engaged or Married on Feb.14, With All the Words Online

Two poems that aren’t usually thought of as Valentine’s Day poems contain lines that would suit longtime lovers, including engaged and married couples.

Robert Browning’s classic “Rabbi Ben Ezra” begins:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

“Rabbi Ben Ezra” isn’t a love poem but a meditation in verse on the life of the 12th-century scholar in its title. But countless lovers have inscribed its famous first two lines, both written in iambic trimeter, onto the flyleaves of books or Valentine’s Day notes and cards. And all three would work for straight or gay couples. The full text of the poem appears online at Bartleby.com.

Another classic with lines that would suit gay or straight couples is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation from the German of Simon Dach’s “Annie of Tharaw.” It includes the rhyming couplets:

Oppression, and sickness, and sorrow, and pain,
Shall be to our true love as links to the chain.

As the palm-tree standeth so straight and so tall,
The more the hail beats, and the more the rains fall, –

So love in our hearts shall grow mighty and strong,
Through crosses, through sorrows, through manifold wrong …

Though forests I’ll follow, and where the sea flows,
Through ice, and through iron, through armies of foes.

“Annie of Tharaw” sounds less sophisticated than many contemporary poems, in part because of its anapestic meter, commonly found in children’s poems such as “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Dach’s words may speak more directly than some of their modern counterparts to couples facing serious illnesses such as AIDS. Their sentiments implicitly ratify and amplify the “in sickness and in health” of wedding vows, so they would also suit anniversaries. The full text appears online at Litscape.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 11, 2009

Three Pick-Up Lines to Avoid If You Want a Date for Valentine’s Day

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:00 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

In an age of hookups and friends-with-benefits, Valentine’s Day can inspire an atavistic craving for an old-fashioned date. If you’re looking for one, some pickup lines won’t help your cause, Caroline Tiger says in How to Behave: Dating and Sex: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged (Chronicle, 2006). Tiger suggests that you avoid:

1. Are you free tonight, or will it cost me?
2. Is it hot in here, or is it just you?
3. I’m going outside to make out. Care to join me?

There, now don’t you feel better-equipped to face the gym and bar?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 17, 2008

Tuesdays With More Jewelry – The 13 Women You Meet in ‘The Necklace’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

“I told Wayne, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you vote for Bush I’ll give you sexual favors.’ I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?’ Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”
— Nancy Huff, who chipped in with 12 other women buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace, on her husband, Wayne

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Think of this book as Tuesdays With More Jewelry. Or For One More Day With a $15,000 Necklace. Or The 13 Women You Meet in Midlife If You’re Planning to Live to Be 100+.

Mitch Albom doesn’t have a new book out this year, but if you’re having withdrawal symptoms, The Necklace offers an antidote in the form of a variation on the Tuesdays With Morrie formula: Take two or more middle-aged or older people, have them meet regularly, and write about the self-evident truths they say “learned” from their get-togethers.

In this case 13 California women, all in their 50s or early 60s, chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace and named it Jewelia. Then they took turns keeping it for a month at a time, sometimes lending it to others or using it as a draw for fund-raisers, and wrote a book about their experiences.

The Necklace brims with praise for the benefits of sharing a necklace that has 118 diamonds. One borrower said, “I’d been depressed because I’m overweight, but the necklace made me feel happy.” This is not a practical solution to America’s obesity epidemic.

Even so, The Necklace has more going for it than much of Albom’s fare, chiefly because the sex is better. The owners of the necklace had an understanding: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” Thus we learn that Nancy Huff gave her husband “sexual favors” in return for a vote for George Bush. (“I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?”) Dale Muegenburg surprised her husband by dressing in schoolgirl porn — “a plaid, pleated miniskirt, a sexy white blouse, and kneesocks” — when they stayed in a dorm at his college reunion.

As proof of what they learned from their purchase, the women offer banalities — including talk about about “second chances” and “the road less traveled” — that hardly seem worth an investment of more than $1,000 apiece. But the bromides don’t count the book, movie and other deals that flowed in after the media heard about their project. And although none of the women acknowledges it, each owner of The Necklace learned something about her death if not about her life: Each woman now knows what the first line of her obituary will be.

Best line: “Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”

Worst line: “Patti didn’t feel the same ecstasy with regard to the group necklace. ‘Diamonds are too common for me.’”

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Necklace was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Wish I’d written that: Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “The group unquestionably helps others by using the necklace to raise money for charities and by appreciating the intangible, self-actualizing gifts that can’t be had in jewelry stores.

“But real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” stores.
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

Editor: Susan Mercandetti

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 7, 2007

The Adults Need the Diaper Change in ‘Dedication,’ the New Novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

OHMYGODYOUGOTTASKIPTHISBOOK!!! Because it has way too many lines like that one and, as its characters might say, It. Is. So. Retarded.

Dedication: A Novel. By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Simon & Schuster/Atria. 279 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Few young writers have squandered their literary capital faster than Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the authors of The Nanny Diaries.Their first novel deftly satirized the world of financially overprivileged New Yorkers and their emotionally underprivileged children. But their subsequent Citizen Girl sounded dreadful, and Dedication is pure schlock, though “pure” may be the wrong word for a book that has many lines like, “Crapcrapcrapcrap.”

Kate Hollis has waited for 13 years to take revenge against “multiplatinum recording megastar Jake Sharpe,” a high school classmate who dumped her. She wants nothing less than to “make him regret his entire existence.” And she finds her moment when Jake returns to their hometown in Vermont to announce his engagement to “international recording superstar” Eden Millay.

But Dedication is no print equivalent of the appealingly frothy My Best Friend’s Wedding. Alternating between the past and present, Kate gives an exhaustive history of her relationship with Jake from middle school to more than a decade after high school, as though it were the run-up to the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V. The chapters have titles like “Seventh Grade,” “Eighth Grade,” and “Ninth Grade,” and give the characters many opportunities to say things like, “Ooh, gross,” and, “You’re so retarded.”

Throughout all of it, Kate and Jake mature so little little that when their confrontation finally occurs, it’s like watching a junior-high food fight. In a sense McLaughlin and Kraus have come full circle: Their plot has changed, but they’re still writing about characters who need nannies.

Best line: None on par with the best in the The Nanny Diaries.

Recommendation? Be prepared for some of the members to stop speaking to you if you recommend this one to a book club.

Consider reading instead: The Nanny Diaries

Worst line: Any of the many on the order of, “Movemovemove, I’ve gotta pee!” and “OHMYGODWHERE’DYOUGETTHATBODY?” For one that’s not a run-on sentence, there’s, “Her face mommabirds.”

Published: June 2007 www.simonsays.com

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 11, 2007

The Bluebird of Unhappiness: ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

What happens when the parents are home alone instead of the children?

[Note: This review has been expanded since the original post.]

The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Just last week, a professor of family studies told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. Some parents, she added, feel more regret than others when children leave home. But “it’s not a widespread syndrome” now that e-mail and cell phones make it easier to keep in touch.

Other scholars have found that – contrary to the idea that mothers feel the most pain when the nest empties – men have more problems than women when children leave home. Women expect the departure of children to be difficult, so they plan (and often grieve in advance) for it. Men are less likely to see the event as a major transition, so they don’t prepare as well and express more regrets about lost opportunities to connect with their offspring.

Then why do we need a book that perpetuates some of the ideas scholars have debunked, especially when only seven of 31 contributors are men? Ellen Levine, a former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, says that mothers still have a hard time with separations from their children: “The dads … no problem.” Yet the idea that fathers have “no problem” with separations is exactly what a growing number of scholars – and some men in this book — dispute. If fathers don’t show their grief, all those repressed emotions may catch up with them when the children leave home for good.

A clue to the purpose of The Empty Nest comes from the publisher, which has tagged it “self-help/inspiration.” This is a bizarre label for an essay collection that, with its mix of dread and tears, reads at times like a cross between a Stephen King novel and Paris Hilton’s weepy courtroom outburst on getting sent back to jail.

Editor Karen Stabiner sets the tone when she writes that it will be “intolerable” when her daughter goes to college. Martha Schuur says she sank into “uncontrollable crying” when she dropped her firstborn off at school. Jamie Wolf felt “perpetual despair” when her daughter moved from California to New York. Hilary Mills “dreaded” her son’s “panic-inducing” departure, which became “bleakest day” of her marriage. Fran Visco knows that she could do things like going to Canyon Ranch now that her son’s away, but she’s too “brokenhearted” and lets herself “wallow in the sadness.” An unintentionally comical scene comes from Grace Saltzstein, who began “freaking out” after installing her daughter in an apartment at UCLA. What had unhinged her? Her daughter’s roommates had gotten to the place first … and left her the top bunk! And only one drawer! To judge by survivors’ accounts, many people who went down with the Titanic showed more fortitude as the ship sank than some contributors to The Empty Nest did as they sent their children off to the kind of colleges that provide students with maid service and Asian-fusion meals.

As if to comfort themselves in their trials, an alarming number of writers abandon any qualms they may have had about bragging about their children. Schuur wants you to know that her daughter Kelly is “pure goodness, always there for family and friends.” Glynna Freeman tells us that she has raised “three bright, beautiful, and really nice people.” Annette Duffy reports that if she “mourned” when her son Ben went to school, she was grieving for a child who was “handsome as the day” and “a nationally ranked freestyler.” Fabiola Santiago says that her daughter got into “the top university in our state,” but Susan Crandell one-ups her by pointing out that her child got into “one of the top schools in the country.” Perhaps the most perceptive comment in this book appears in an e-mail Charles “Chip” McGrath got after he wrote a piece for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Empty Nest, about dropping his son off at college. “It’s interesting, and typical, that people who love their children very much approach this moment in their children’s lives with almost total self-absorption,” his correspondent wrote. Almost total?

A striking aspect of many of the women’s stories — more so than in the men’s — is how unwilling their authors are to explore whether anything might be causing their pain except for a child’s departure. Did some women regret having worked so hard and not spending more time with their children? Did they have problems in their marriages and dread spending time alone with a spouse? Did they feel a spiritual void, having made motherhood into a surrogate religion? If so, they aren’t telling. Nor are they telling whether they drank, took Paxil or Prozac or went into therapy, even though some of their symptoms resemble those of clinical depression.

Good statistics on the divorce rate among people over 50 are hard to find, partly because many states don’t record the ages of couples who split up. But experts generally agree that it’s going up, partly because baby boomers’ children are leaving home, and in every generation, many couples wait to separate until the nest empties. Yet not one of the 31 contributors reports that his or her marriage took a serious hit when a child left. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe this is a “feel good about feeling bad book” that legitimizes lesser problems while sweeping bigger ones under the rug.

Stabiner seems to have tried to deflect criticism that this book promotes stereotypes of women by recruiting some feminist firepower. And to a degree, it works. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Anna Quindlen and Ellen Goodman rise above solipsism in their essays and try put empty nests in a social context. Pogrebin says that her stage of life has advantages: “Not having to worry about where your children are at two in the morning frees you up to worry about global warming.” Quindlen argues, rightly, that her generation has “professionalized” motherhood, but goes around the bend when she concludes that for this reason, “the empty nest is emptier than every before.” No, Anna, your nest will not be “emptier” than that of women like Rochelle Reed’s grandmother, who sent four sons into World War II; one son, Reed writes, “was eaten by sharks after his plane crashed during a South Pacific monsoon.”

Of all the contributors, Goodman grapples most effectively with an issue at the heart of The Empty Nest: Isn’t this book a throwback to the 1950s? Isn’t the departure of children less traumatic now that women have more professional opportunities? Goodman says that she used to think mothers who had rewarding work “might avoid the cliché of an empty-nest syndrome.” But she doubts it now that her daughter has lived away from home for two decades. In her 60s, Goodman hasn’t lost her desire to integrate work and family, so she has revised her juggling act to accommodate a grandchild and stepgrandchild: “Think of it as Juggling Lite.” Her young relations are happy with the arrangement. So the question – for Goodman as for many other parents — has changed. It is no longer “How can I avoid the empty-nest syndrome?” It is, simply, “What empty nest?”

Despite such worthy essays, much of this book remains disheartening. The second wave of feminists fought passionately to show employers and others that women didn’t wallow in emotion but could remain tough and level-headed in the most difficult circumstances. On the evidence of The Empty Nest women are reclaiming their right to wallow. This a book in the Oprah mold, which ascribes more authenticity to experiences the more painful they are. Gloria Steinem used to say that many women were “man junkies.” And like much of our culture as a whole, The Empty Nest leaves the impression that some have become “child junkies” instead. Is it really a step forward to have traded one addiction for another?

Best line: Anna Quindlen’s: “Motherhood has changed from a role into a calling. Our poor kids.” The best overall essays come from McGrath, Goodman and Roxana Robinson.

Worst line: Anna Quindlen’s: “The end result is that the empty nest is emptier than ever before …” Apart from its off-the-wall implication that today’s stay-at-home investment bankers have it worse than parents who saw their children get drafted during the Vietnam War or look for jobs during the Depression, that “end result” is painful, too.

Caveat lector: The review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Conflict alert: I’ve had encounters with a number of contributors to this book that other critics might or might not see as conflicts. For example, I used to be in a writers’ group with Ellen Goodman’s sister, whom I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. All the other encounters are all similarly distant.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted just before this review on June 11 and is archived with the June posts. You can find the publishers’ guide, which is less extensive, at www.everywomansvoice.com.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Published: May 2007

Links: Karen Fingerman, a professor of developmental and family studies at Purdue, spoke about the myth of the empty-nest syndrome in “How to Make the Best of an Empty Nest,” by Jennifer Huget, the Washington Post, June 5, 2007, page HE04. For a discussion of the different effects of the empty nest on men and women, see Rebecca A. Clay’s “An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships” in the American Psychological Association Online, April 2003. To find the article, Google “Rebecca Clay + Empty Nest + APA.”

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book review site created by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. It does not accept free books or other materials from editors, publishers or authors. At least 50 percent of the book reviewed on the site are by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the other days up for grabs. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 371 other followers

%d bloggers like this: