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book review

‘How We Live Now’ by Bella DePaulo

anthony russo for the boston globe

The author of “Singled Out” and inventor of the term “singlism” might not appear the most obvious candidate to write a book focused on innovative communal living arrangements.

But given Bella DePaulo’s passion for iconoclasm, the choice makes a certain sense. “How We Live Now” is not quite a polemic against the suburban nuclear family in all its glorious isolation. But it serves as a manifesto on behalf of the proliferating alternatives — from cohabiting groups of single mothers with children to village-like developments that emphasize neighborliness and shared responsibilities.

As it turns out, the book also pays attention to the virtues of solo living. And one of its recurring themes is the importance of balancing the need for personal space and privacy with social interaction and community.


“Everyone is seeking just the right mix of sociability and solitude, with both easy to come by,” DePaulo writes. A social psychologist and project scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, DePaulo understands that the optimal balance will differ from person to person.

The New Urbanism, multigenerational households, boomerang kids, and the decision of some (often older) couples to live apart all have received considerable media attention. DePaulo’s aim — and her achievement — is to provide a useful overview of these options and others, buttressed by interviews with their practitioners.

“Until now,” she writes, “there has been no unifying concept or name to tie together the stories that have been written about the ways we currently live.” So DePaulo, an ace of neologism, has coined the rubric “lifespace literature.” Living arrangements don’t involve simply real estate, architecture, and urban design, she points out, but how we construct our concepts of friendship and family.

“Despite decades of cynicism on all sorts of other matters,” DePaulo writes, “family is still sentimentalized. Yet it may be friendship, more so than family, that captures the essence of twenty-first-century life.” And the nub of friendship, as she sees it, is choice.


One lifespace choice involves groups of unrelated people living together — from young adults motivated largely by cost savings to older women seeking camaraderie and the potential for non-institutional caregiving.

A larger phenomenon is the growing number of adult children who return to the parental home — or never leave. In 1980, DePaulo reports, only 11 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds lived with their parents. But by 2012, that figure had reached 23.6 percent, boosted by the Great Recession but also, DePaulo suggests, other factors. Citing a 2012 AARP survey, she writes: “In every way, the younger generation reported more connectedness with their parents than did the boomer generation.”

These parent-adult child households constitute just a subset of the back-to-the-future trend of multigenerational homes. DePaulo profiles one Minnesota household that includes four generations of women, with mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all doting on a single 8-year-old child, Mari.

Other trends are the New Urbanism, the creation of verdant small-town settings within suburban areas, and the more expansive grass-roots phenomenon of “cohousing,” which can exist anywhere.

There is a certain retro feel to that concept, which allows for separate living spaces but privileges neighborliness and shared activities. Design is integral, including sensitivity to “the ways in which spatial arrangements can create or discourage conviviality.” Features typically include a common house for everything from games to laundry, and the replacement of garages and fences with open space.


Other innovative arrangements include single mothers with children living together, or cohabitation by co-parents who are not romantic partners. The matchmaking required for these options is facilitated by the Internet — sites such as CoAbode, Family by Design, and Modamily.

DePaulo explores the decisions of some committed couples to live apart, and the ways in which people living alone reach out for community. She also touches on “consensual nonmonogamy,” or polyamory — a subject that deserves, and has gotten, its own books.

Finally, especially for seniors, there is the Village movement, which provides services in support of independent living, as well as the alternative of the Continuing Care Retirement Community.

As DePaulo declares, “[t]his book is biased,” since she “set out to find people who were (mostly) proud of their lifespaces.” Not surprisingly, “How We Live Now” is short on drama and somewhat repetitive in both tone and content.

Its value may lie in stimulating more thinking about how architecture and design can adapt to evolving notions of privacy and community. Better yet, it may spur singles and others to ponder more creatively the possibilities for connection — and to realize that “[t]here is no one blueprint for the good life.”

How We Live Now:

Redefining Home and

Family in the 21st Century

By Bella DePaulo. Atria/Beyond Words, 302 pp., illustrated, $26

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.