17 June 2014

Sleepin' On Meg Wolitzer

Like a lot of people, I was impressed with Meg Wolitzer's THE INTERESTINGS last year and looked forward to delving into her back catalogue later. As I always say, there's nothing better than getting acquainted with an author and discovering that she has an extensive list already. I had been aware of Wolitzer for years but it seems like suddenly she's everywhere, including on the fiction table at a local book swap where I snatched up THE TEN-YEAR NAP, her novel two before THE INTERESTINGS. (She was also at BEA when I was, promoting her first YA novel BELZHAR, but I unfortunately wasn't able to check that out.)

THE TEN-YEAR NAP surrounds a circle of mothers whose sons attend the same Manhattan schools. These are mostly stay-at-home moms who feel, and display, varying levels of ambivalence toward that role and how it overlaps with their identities. In particular, Amy, a former lawyer with a ten-year-old son, feels stranded between her working persona (and the office where she met her husband, who still works there) and what her next career should be. The uncertainty is paralyzing, and none of her friends have it any clearer themselves: Her best friend Jill moves to the suburbs and sees that journey from the wrong end of the periscope, feeling lonely and set apart. And her new friend Penny, the rare mother who works full-time (as a museum director), divulges a shocking secret that leads Amy to further question what exactly she wants.

In format and content, THE TEN-YEAR NAP is a less savage, more modern reworking of Marilyn French's THE WOMEN'S ROOM, a semi-landmark feminist novel featuring a very large cast of women reckoning with their feminist awakenings. It's a format I found strangely hypnotic in French's treatment (I remember a long trip on the Caltrain when I had to remind myself to look up as we passed through stations) and only a little less so in Wolitzer's. French's novel is first-/second-wave, Wolitzer's is third-wave; this is a novel taking place in the "opting out" era but where the women are hyperaware of how their personal decisions may not reflect what they feel they as women ought to do. Amy's mother used to hold a consciousness-raising group in her living room; along with her fear and ambivalence, Amy feels guilty for disappointing her too. It's worth noting, though, that both of these are character studies, not Agenda novels; some of my favorite vignettes from NAP feature characters revealing something that has been referenced in another section, elaborating, clarifying, and building that world around them. They felt like women, not like subjects in a New York Times Magazine profile.

The stumbling blocks of NAP are the very short chapters set in the past, exploring the perspectives of women tangentially related to the main ensemble of the book -- the mothers, primarily, but also a few other women and even a historical figure. I see what Wolitzer was trying to do with these, but they felt shallow and not fully realized due to their length. Some were also overly didactic, having less space to pack in the character work necessary to tie them into the rest of the novel at large. It felt like Wolitzer doing French when Wolitzer should just do Wolitzer; the nuance with which the characters in NAP are handled sets it apart from the many many other novels covering this same territory.

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