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Book Review

‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ by Katie Roiphe

In a collection of essays, Katie Roiphe shares her thoughts on unconventional women, divorce, single motherhood, and more.

Anna Schori

In a collection of essays, Katie Roiphe shares her thoughts on unconventional women, divorce, single motherhood, and more.

What happens to a contrarian in midlife? If she’s Katie Roiphe, 44, controversial author and go-to gender critic, she doesn’t lose her taste for drama. She does, however, grow more interested in experiences beyond her own. In short, she matures, adding to her incisive intelligence and gift for turning a provocative phrase, a hue of humility.

Roiphe traces becoming an independent woman of a certain age in “In Praise of Messy Lives,” her worthwhile, if mixed, new collection of essays, virtually all of which have already been published elsewhere. The best deal with her role as a single mother, rejecting the mandate to self-erase. In the post-feminist age, who matters more, mother or child? Roiphe chooses the former. But she’s defensive, extolling in her introduction the alternative virtues of a “messy life,’’ while decrying “a cultural preoccupation with healthiness above all else, a veiled judgment toward anyone who tried to live differently.”

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This battle — between her individual freedom and thirst to be admired as a parent — is startling. After all, she’s spent her career flouting the mainstream. In the past decade, Roiphe has dropped from the gilded status of Ivy League graduate to the ranks of single mothers, a group that often attracts — fairly or not — pity and sometimes disdain. Divorced, with two young children, one of whom was born out of wedlock, Roiphe now has greater reason to want to tip the scales in favor of the educated bohemian.

Certainly, her interest in unconventional women is revealed here by her pieces on renowned female authors, including Jane Austen, Maureen Dowd, and Joan Didion: gifted figures all familiar with the single state. But her impulse to offend the majority of her gender remains on display; she’s included her recent Newsweek cover story on working women’s submissive fantasies, following the best-selling status of the romance-porn novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

In April, Roiphe enraged feminists by linking a female desire to be dominated in bed to more women achieving pay parity with men. Her logic confounded many. But when it comes to politics, Roiphe’s are misunderstood. She remains less a feminist than an individualist, albeit one who’s often framed what’s good for her as advancing sisterly interests.

In 1993, Roiphe, then 24, rebuked college coeds protesting sexual violence. In her debut book, “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus,” she groused, “Now instead of liberation and libido, the emphasis is on trauma and disease.” Like a sex advocate for smart girls, ages 18-25, she dismissed caution, sniffing: “It’s a difficult backdrop for conducting one’s youth.” Some were shocked by her cavalier concern: that focus on STDs and date rape might stymie erotic adventure. But her yen for passion remains the drumbeat for her writing.

Today, Roiphe still writes hungrily of escapade, but her take can be tempered by self-reflection. And her increased interest in others is a plus, not a minus. Indeed, Roiphe is at her most winning when she admits to common experiences, like loss. Still, she’s offended by friends’ concern about her divorce in her essay “The Great Escape’’ — as if their concern that she’s grappling with grief suggests that she’s just ordinary.

Feeling wrecked by a breakup isn’t mandatory. But neither is kindness always motivated by schadenfreude. If Roiphe is herself spurred by competitive impulse, her prose is so vivid that it’s hard to look away, even when she’s at her most crowing. In “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night,’’ she compares having an affair with her best friend’s love during college to gutting fish, reveling at the ruin, the “liver, kidney, roe, splayed open on the slick wooden docks, for all to see.”

Even now, thrill lies in flouting convention. “The true stigma of divorce, at this particular moment in time, is that of failing as a parent,” she gripes in one essay, then describes in another leaving her two children at night: “I go off in a car to meet a man at a hotel bar. This will seem like the wrong structure to many people.” For a contrarian, isn’t that the point?

Susan Comninos is a writer in New York. Her journalism has appeared in The Atlantic Online, Christian Science Monitor, and Jewish Daily Forward, among others.
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