Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Not-So-New Review: The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

Some people have the means to pre-order a hardcover copy of every interesting read they hear about and some have the ability to download in an instant any title that strikes their fancy.  I envy those people, but this review isn't for them. It is for the bargain shelf-shopping, interlibrary loan-borrowing, not so of-the-moment, frugal readers like me. Enjoy.

I came across Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap on the sale rack of a local bookstore on a day when I had cut my already truncated work day even shorter than normal because it was exam week and I was completely caught up on my grading, had already cleaned and organized my desk and had found myself considering redecorating the bulletin board in the closet-like department office where I'm kept. I had stopped at bookstore to pick up a gift certificates for end of the year teacher gifts but started browsing because I had time before I had to get to Little E's daycare. As I strolled through the quiet shelves, I realized that I was out in the world on a sunny June day while most people were stuck at work.  I felt soaringly fortunate but also a little insignificant. It seems improbably serendipitous that I would stumble across a book about just this sort of conundrum for only $3.98, but it's true.

The Ten Year Nap focuses on Amy Lamb and her circle New York City mothers, most of whom she knows from the all-boys private school her 10-year-old son attends, but it also offers quick glimpses into the lives and hearts of a range of women from the mothers of the main characters, to Margaret Thatcher's personal assistant to Georgette Magritte to a casino cashier in South Dakota.  In telling their various stories the novel explores the way women view work and success and how motherhood impacts women's expectations for themselves. 

Wolitzer writes about serious issues with a sense of humor that entertained me but also prompted me to think a lot about my own decisions and motivation.  However, as someone who was raised by a factory worker father and waitress-turned-secretary mother, parents whose work had nothing to do with ego or affluence and everything to do with feeding, clothing and sheltering their children, I wished that Wolitzer had included a more nuanced look at the parenting and relationship issues present when full-time mothering is not an option.

Overlooking or romanticizing the working poor seems prevalent in much of what is written about work and motherhood, though, so I tried not to hold it against Wolitzer. This was made easier by the fact that even if the central characters may not feel entirely relatable to me on the surface, much of what they go through is: the complicated results of pulling off the career track in order to focus on motherhood, the pain of admitting that a child's path might be more difficult than you'd hoped, the unearned resentment that a spouse's success can breed, and the ease with which a person can trick herself into believing that she can have everything she wants even when she can't. 

In addition to touching on universal emotions, Wolitzer also finds the words to express them in a way that makes the familiar feel extraordinary: "You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you'd given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless.  You wouldn't know the outcome for a long time."   Passages like that so eloquently express my own feelings that I found myself feeling a little put out that she could phrase my own thoughts so much better than I ever have.  Stay-at-home mother, lawyer, teacher, waitress or casino cashier, mothers in all their incarnations, I think, can relate to this central truth about the nature of motherhood.

Regardless of my ambivalence about the career choices that had me browsing a bookstore at 11 a.m. on a Monday --or what Meg Wolitzer might think of them-- I'm glad I found The Ten-Year Nap and will be looking for more from her at the library.

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