10 Discussion Questions
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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Katha Pollitt steers into the skids of female experience in Learning to Drive, a collection of 10 elegant and often witty essays about her many roles – wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer. Like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, this book deals in part with the ironies and absurdities inherent in cultural expectations of women, particularly those over 50.
Questions for Readers
1. Pollitt says in her first essay that she’s 52 and learning to drive a car because a man she lived with for seven years has left her. At the end of the book, she still doesn’t seem to have passed her road test. But she has learned a few things about life. Which impressed you the most? What did you learn from Learning to Drive?
2. We find out on the second page that Pollitt’s lover was cheating on her almost from the start. From then on, a central question of the book becomes the one posed in different form on page 57, “How could I have been so stupid?” What’s Pollitt’s answer? What’s yours?
3. “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry,” Pollitt writes. “But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.” [Page 63] Do you think that women are attracted to philanderers? Or do you think they simply put up with them? If so, why do they tolerate them? In those lines Pollitt deals only with the psychological reasons why women stay with philanders. Might there be other reasons – sexual, financial, social? What are they? How does Pollitt’s view of womanizers differ from those you’ve seen on Sex and the City and in other media?
4. In “After the Men Are Dead” Pollitt reflects on what life will be like for women when they have outlived their husbands and other men. Would it be “restful” not to have to think about “love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at the old jokes” and all the ways in which women accommodate men’s needs and expectations? [Page 79] Would you find it restful, sad or both?
5. The essay “Beautiful Screamer” deals partly with a paradox of having an infant or young child. As Pollitt sees it, motherhood was “so important, so necessary” that it placed you at the center of life: “At the same time, it marginalized you totally.” [Page 112] Pollitt felt sidelined partly because she faced new physical limits – the post office banned strollers. [Page 114] She also felt excluded in more subtle ways. What were they? If you’re a mother, do you agree that motherhood isolates you? Why?
6. Single or childless people who live in suburbs or small towns that are billed as “family-friendly” might disagree with the views Pollitt expresses in “Beautiful Screamer.” They might say that they feel isolated because so much of the social life revolves around children’s school, sports or other activities. How do the views of the mothers in your group differ from those of the childless members?
7. Pollitt writes about her father in “Good-bye, Lenin” and her mother in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” Does either parent come off better than the other? Why?
8. Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad an pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.” [Page 196] What effect do these terms have on you? On our society? What word or words would you use for what some people call “the last trimester of life”?
9. A backlash may be growing against those magazine articles with titles like “Fabulous at Fifty.” Pollitt challenges this kind of aggressive cheerleading. So did Nora Ephron in her essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Virginia Ironside in her comic novel, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Is the backlash overdue or unfair? Which of the books that you’ve read makes the best case for a more nuanced view of life after 50?
10. Pollitt writes from a feminist perspective. This is clearest in lines such as: “Feminism was supposed to be about the things women had in common, and I had always thought of myself as someone who liked women. When someone – usually a woman; in fact, always a woman – said I ‘thought like a man’ I felt insulted for both women and myself; it was as if I was being expelled from the tribe.” [Pages 61-62] What do you think feminism is “about” in 2007? How would you react if someone said that you “thought like a man”?
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95. Published: September 2007. A review of Learning to Drive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.
Your book group may also want to read:
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. Review: Essays about being over 60 by the author of Heartburn. Ephron covers some of the topics that Pollitt does — faithless men, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the pressure to conform to idealized images of women – and your group might compare their views on these. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/. Reading group guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is 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. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.