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Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own Hardcover – April 21, 2015
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Now, as far as to whether this book actually delivered? I'd have to give it 3 stars (and that is a bit generous). I found her point somewhat elusive. I'd be reading and thinking, "Yeah, yeah . . . okay, I get it," and a paragraph later or at the end of the page I'd have lost the thread. Or maybe I didn't lose the thread-- maybe I was looking for something more subtle or something more significant and it's not there. Maybe the point the point of the book really IS as simple as it seems: that marriage has historically been the focal point of women's lives to the detriment of their individual development. Well, huh.
I am a female in her late 40s who does not have much patience for what I consider the unrealistic self-indulgent soft intellectualism that runs amok in a lot of women's studies programs. I also don't have much tolerance for the relentless pursuit of 'Me,' to the exclusion of all else -- something this book has in big doses. Sentences like those on the jacket " Spinster . . . . asks us to acknowledge the opportunities that exist within ourselves to live authentically" really set up my hackles. Just what the hell does that mean, anyhow? This is the kind of teeth-grinding hipster jargon that really makes me lose respect for an author. A good writer should do better than falling back on such pablum and there are frequent instances of it throughout the book. When I read she'd been an editor at a fashion magazine that kind of writing made sense. The book jacket mentions her affiliation with The Atlantic (Monthly) a magazine I had a subscription to for over 15 years. I guess that led me to expect something a bit different.
All that aside, I did enjoy reading about the author's 'journey,' which is basically comprised of lots and lots of relationships and short affairs, but without the traditional mantle of marriage along the way. This is not a woman who spends much time alone. By the end of the book I lost a bit of respect for her as she seemed to view every intimate relationship from the vantage point of what SHE could get out of it. I began to get the feeling that she equated remaining a spinster with making her own needs and herself the center of her existence. This seems a bit different from women who remained a spinster to avoid becoming breeding units or chattel. If what she is saying is that the feminist movement has made it possible to act as selfishly as men that isn't exactly a news flash. Sorry, but I think either gender acting like their needs trump those of their intimates have some issues.
It seems like dubious logic to compare her situation with women who lived in such a different time -- before there was birth control, the right to vote, and when women were a category of chattel to name a few. My point is that there are completely different reasons to remain unmarried now as opposed to 100 years ago. I found it a bit apples to oranges.
I thought it was head-scratchingly entertaining that none of the 5 historical figures the author holds up as a spinster is actually a spinster: all 5 women were married. She seems to think that if they had unsuccessful marriages or obtained divorces that that somehow catapulted them back into the spinster category. Sorry, that doesn't work for me. I looked in 5 separate dictionaries and they all defined a spinster as an unmarried woman. The author picked these women because they were personal heroes and that is fine. But they aren't spinsters and that seems a tad on the disingenuous side for a book with that title.
Ah, well. I did enjoy the book and it certain got me thinking. It's not a difficult book to read and I can see it becoming a book club staple.
"The single woman is nearly always considered an anomaly, an aberration from the social order," Bolick goes on to write. This too may have been true in the past, but recent statistics now indicate that the living situation of a married couple with children no longer comprise the majority of households and indeed is becoming an anomaly – although there are still some parts of the country in which a single woman is likely to feel very much alone and out of place.
Despite the many criticisms I have of SPINSTER: MAKING A LIFE OF ONE'S OWN, and although it is not at all what the book title led me to expect, I enjoyed reading it. What did I expect? A book about being an unmarried single woman for life (by choice or default) and dealing with advantages and disadvantages of not having a partner and intimate relationship central to one's life. Author Bolick only lightly touches on the above subject, whereas most of the book is a memoir about her hectic dating life (admittedly, she's usually super-social and doesn't allow herself much alone time) and above all, an explorations of the lives of five female writers of the past who inspired her.
These writers are: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gibbons, Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, and Edith Wharton. Given they are the focus of a book entitled SPINSTER, it is odd and incongruous that none of these were spinsters in the sense of never-married women. All were married for at least parts of their lives, and some (Millay in particular) had active sexual lives.
Instead of focusing on the traditional and most accepted meaning of the word "spinster" , Bolick uses the definition found in the Black's Law Dictionary – a single woman or a woman who is separated from her husband, or whose marriage was dissolved by death or divorce. Perhaps without intending to be derogatory, Bolick by omission does in a way slight women who never chose to marry or make an intimate relationship the center of their lives since she gives little attention to their concerns or lifestyles.
In addition, because of her sharing about her own active sexual life and coupledom AND on the lives of once-married writers who lived in a society before birth control (and the late 20th century sexual revolution and feminist rebirth), Bolick manages to avoid focusing on her own subtitle: Making A Life of One's Own – at least according to 21st century reality.
I was, however, drawn into the book from the start because like Bolick, my favorite book in childhood was ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, my favorite poet for decades was Millay, and one of my favorite novelists has been Edith Wharton. But my identification stopped there. As other reviewers have pointed out, Kate Bolick lives a privileged lifestyle – with financial security provided by her parents, the freedom to pursue her own creative work without the risk of being destitute, and an upscale active dating life. This is not the lifestyle of the average "spinster" today.
Yet Bolick's breezy conversational style and personal sharing contributes to the readability of her book, and her brief biographies and discussions of five writers are likely to introduce the reader to female writers with whom they have not been familiar, such as Gibbons, Brennan and Boyce. Despite having written my high school English thesis on Millay, I didn't even know how notorious and scandalous Millay's lifestyle was!
Initially Bolick briefly traces the evolution of the word "spinster" – the word refers to an unmarried girl or young woman who spun thread for a living – since the Renaissance when it was an honorable term. Not until colonial America and British influence in New England did "spinster" become synonymous with "old maid" and disparaging in meaning. Spinsters were unmarried women over the age of 23 (probably most who wished to marry but were not considered desirable). Unfortunately, for many centuries, such spinsters were suspect – and too often condemned as witches.
Personally, I wish that Bolick had focused more on the lifestyles and challenges of never-married women today or at least 21st century uncoupled women - women of different races, income levels, and cultures (not only ethnically, but with respect to the region of the country in which they live – being single in Cambridge, Massachusetts is an entirely different experience than being single in a small Midwestern town or a traditional Southern city).
As a never-married woman in my mid60s who led "Becoming Your Own Heroine" workshops for single women for many years, I believe that a book titled SPINSTER: Making a Life of One's Own would be more meaningful to readers if it addressed the real experiences and issues of concern to unmarried women today, such as:
a) How can you cope with the reality of being surrounded by couples and families with children?
b) If you live in a region of the country in which singlehood is an anomaly, how do you create for yourself some kind of belonging?
c) How do you deal with holidays, vacations and periods of illness – times in which couples and families tend to rely upon each other?
d) How can you meet your emotional needs for closeness and your needs for touch (and sex) when you don't have a primary partner? Or how can you cope with those needs being unmet?
e) How does your singlehood impact your ability to make and relate to friendships?
f) What are the advantages and disadvantages of friendships being your primary relationships, and how can you avoid having undue emotional expectations of friends, particularly those who are coupled?
g) How do you cope with the greater financial costs of singlehood and perhaps living alone – no shared mortgages and utility bills, additional costs for single rooms when traveling etc.
h) How can you best prepare for the likelihood or reality of living alone without family during your senior years, and perhaps with declining health?
i) How can you reframe your "spinsterhood" in a manner which helps you to feel proud rather than apologetic for your lifestyle, and able to stand upright and contented around those who might judge or pity you – or even envy you?
Bolick barely touches on most of the above issues, and completely ignores many of them (especially ageing and dealing with poor health as a single woman). But clearly, because she did not intend to write a book of this nature, she could have chosen a title and subtitle more relevant to her subject matter.
If you don't expect a self-help book, and if you allow SPINSTER to be what it is, you are likely, at least to have a pleasant and somewhat informative reading experience. I rate it 3.5 stars.
I ordered this book because I enjoyed the Atlantic article by Kate Bolick and now that it seems that all of my friends are getting married, I was hoping for a little perspective on moving into my thirties as someone who hasn't yet found the right relationship - this is what the book appears to be from the cover, but it's actually something totally different. I'm not saying that there aren't things that are worth celebrating in being single; there are many, but you won't find them here. I get the sense that the author hasn't spent much time truly alone at all (and of course, none of the role models that she profiles here were ultimately spinsters either.) In general it's well written and an easy read, but if you are expecting anything truly insightful or groundbreaking I'd skip it.