Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kate Bolick Chases Her Spinster Wish

I've been married for nearly 12 years, but I continue to harbor fantasies about how great it is to be single along with possibly overly fond memories of how much I loved my life when I was a modern-day spinster in my 20s and 30s.

Nobody cared whether I stumbled home drunk on a week night! I could walk around the apartment in my underpants whenever I wanted! (OK, I still do that now.) I could lie around in bed for hours and read novels on weekend mornings, eat spaghetti for dinner every night, take baths at midnight, and have long, involved phone conversations with my sisters and girlfriends to my heart's content.

Now, I've learned, I'm not the only woman with fantasies of spinsterhood. Kate Bolick, a New York-based writer and contributing editor to The Atlantic, has just published Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, a personally engaging and thoughtfully researched book about her life as a modern urban woman who is sometimes "alone" without a man in her life, sometimes attached and always single by choice.
Kate Bolick, "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own"
Bolick writes of something she calls her "spinster wish," which she describes as "shorthand for the extravagant pleasures of simply being alone." When Bolick was just out of college and journaling furiously, she covered hundreds of pages with all her tedious thoughts and feelings about the latest dramas in her  romantic life. But every now and then, when one of those romances had crashed and burned, Bolick would write about returning to the joys of spinsterhood: "Oct. 3, 1995: Ah, finally, W has left; back to my little spinster ways....Nov. 12, 1995: A long, perfect spinster wish of a Sunday, read all day, took two naps."

Now over the age of 40 and still unwed, Bolick has since seen more men come and go in her life, along with a marriage proposal or three, but she hasn't given up on her spinster wish. If anything, she has formalized her relationship to it with time and study, and now has a book to show for her efforts.

Some might describe the book as a would-be feminist cri de coeur. "The deeper question about women's relationship to conventionality might be why it's apparently a bigger factor for us than for men. For Bolick, the answer is fear -- her personal fear about becoming a bag lady or a cat lady, both living proof of what it means not to be loved," writes Laura Kipnis in Slate.

Others may see Spinster as a highly personal literary memoir, and indeed, I can't recall ever having read an analysis of Victorian women writers that segues into the hamster wheel of dating life in 21st-century New York. Heather Havrilesky in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, calls Bolick's book "an idiosyncratic journey through Bolick's decades-long exploration of how to live independently, with cues from an assortment of nontraditional women."

Those nontraditional women are five women writers, all of them bad girls by my reckoning, called "awakeners" by Bolick in a term she borrows from novelist Edith Wharton. In addition to Wharton, Bolick's awakeners are poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, New Yorker essayist Maeve Brennan, magazine columnist Neith Boyce and short story writer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

It's entertaining to read about these five women's careers in the past century, and to learn of their struggles to juggle their personal and writing lives. (If you're familiar with this blog, you'll know that I love women in history who fought for their rights to live, love, work and party.) But the trouble begins as it becomes apparent over the course of Bolick's book that none of her awakeners fit the traditional definition of spinster: an unmarried woman.

In fact, all of Kate Bolick's spinsters were married, some for a short while and some for the long haul, but married nevertheless. And I predict that Bolick herself will be married at some point, and we'll hear about it on social media when it happens, as her critics feign shock! and scandal! when they report the news.

Yet her book is about spinsters, and so she engages in some magical thinking that extends to her apparent belief that everything happens for the best.

If your magazine gets shut down, as Bolick's did, and you have to move back in with your family at the age of 38 because you were stone-cold broke, why, it was meant to be on your magical path to modern-day spinsterhood! And if you then scratch together enough cash to move back to Brooklyn because you were bored being stuck back at home, and you land a new job plus a sexy younger boyfriend, well, who's to say that's not being a spinster nowadays?

Still, Spinster is a surprisingly compulsive read. It's confessional, brings historic figures to life, and is likely to remind any woman who reads it that we are all feminists if we have a pulse.

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