There have been two types of reviews of Kate Bolick’s widely-hyped memoir, “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own’’: those who believe it describes the pressures women still face and those who say the book is absurdly out of touch. The first group of reviewers is largely young(er) women. The second is mostly baby boomers who lived through second-wave feminism.
I fall in between these two groups age-wise and critically. I like that Bolick is pointing out how being a woman writer still unfortunately requires fighting your way through male egos and enduring mansplaining, to use Rebecca Solnit’s fun term. But mostly reading Bolick felt like plunging into something from the “Mad Men’’ era.
“Whom to marry, and when it will happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence,’’ Bolick begins her book. “But what if it wasn’t this way?” she later asks.
As the publicity material accompanying “Spinster’’ points out, though, enough American women are unmarried to form a small country. So the central argument of the book is wrong.
It is wrong because three waves of feminism have transformed women’s lives. Women can work, go to school, own property, live by themselves, and sue for sexual harassment.
Yet, Bolick scatters feminism across the book like a condiment. Her meal is girl power.
At first I thought Bolick downplayed feminism because, like other popular writers, she was more interested in showing how women’s desire to both have a self and be a partner transcends any social or political movement. But as I read on, I realized that she is writing out of nostalgia. She genuinely wishes she had been born in an earlier era, when being single would make her an outlaw. That way she could truly be a victim, not just play one inside her own head.
It is a testament to Bolick that despite her flawed argument, “Spinster’’ can be an engaging read. There are homey details about her Newburyport childhood and life in Boston before moving to New York to go to graduate school. Some of the writing about her mother’s early death from cancer is moving. And Bolick is capable of both sharp social observations and reversing her own opinion.
But the nice moments drown in the swamp of the book’s argument. Part of the problem is that Bolick mashes together two stories. There is the coming-of-age tale, in which she struggles to balance ambition as a writer and what she thinks the world is demanding of her — to marry. And there are biographies of five brilliant 19th- and 20th-century women writers whose “highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage” gave Bolick the courage to pursue the single writer’s life after her mother’s death.
Without the well-known women writers Bolick calls her “awakeners” — Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman — “Spinster’’ would have remained the 2011 Atlantic magazine cover story it started out as. But the awakeners, most of whom were not spinsters, give this book an overstuffed feel.
Still, the bigger problem is that Bolick simply does not do enough to separate sociological fact from urban legend, opinion from truth.
She starts one chapter writing about her fear of becoming a bag lady, which is tragically how Brennan wound up. Later, she learns that Brennan’s apparent mental illness contributed to her fate. She is relieved because that makes Brennan an outlier. But the reality is that women artists are more apt to wind up impoverished seniors than male ones because they make less money.
Another cultural muddle comes when Bolick describes herself as “coddled” because her parents gave her the idea that she could fall back on marriage if writing didn’t work out. According to one of Bolick’s Atlantic colleagues, Hanna Rosin, that would make her the outlier. Female breadwinners are on the rise. And even if Bolick is skeptical about this trend’s ubiquity, it’s strange to not mention it.
Worst is what seems like willful naivete when Bolick projects her ridiculous argument backward onto her awakeners. She writes that although Millay wrote “a lot of admittedly mediocre political poetry” after she married, because she was still putting pen to paper, “she never stopped being herself.”
Only in some Oprah-ish fantasy could that be true.
Nearly 20 years ago, the writer Vivian Gornick made the startling observation that romantic love “can no longer act as an organizing principle.” Gornick was arguing that feminism had made it impossible for romantic love to define a story.
“Spinster,’’ which closes as Bolick has both a book contract and a cute, young boyfriend, pretends this never happened.
Bolick may have achieved romantic bliss, but she never achieves the literary gravitas that Gornick manages in one sentence.
Rachel Shteir is an author, most recently of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.” She can be reached at rachelshteir@ gmail.com.