Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The Ten Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer
I read The Wife by Meg Wolitzer a few years ago, and was impressed by her careful observation and precise language. I spotted the "twist" ending well before it happened, even without knowing that there was a twist. So, when The Ten Year Nap came out, it seemed like a Must Read.
The title refers to the fact that women spend an average of 11 years out of the workforce while raising their children--the women of this book are facing their children's 10th year, and are confronting where they have been and where they are going after having been out of the world of work for so long. There is Amy, a former trusts and estates lawyer who never went back after her son was born; Jill, who had her graduate dissertation rejected and never really recovered; Karen, a brilliant statistical analyst who used numbers like other people use words; and Roberta, an artist and puppeteer who gave up art for craft while raising her kids.
Things happen, though this is not a book to read for the plot. Jill moves out of New York City to a suburb, and while there finds her adopted daughter has significant learning deficits. Jill fears she is an inadequate mother and struggles to find the easy love she thinks she should have for her daughter. Amy meets and befriends a new woman, Penny, who is the curator of a small museum. At first, Amy idolizes Penny as a woman who did not make compromises when her children were born, but kept her pre-child identity in a way Amy did not. Inevitably, Penny reveals herself as flawed, and the friendship does not survive.
Roberta was a talented artist, but never got out of the ghetto of "women artists." She moved into puppetry, where she met her husband. When the children arrived, he took a regular job as a news cameraman, and continued to perform with his puppets on weekends. Toward the end of the book, he is launching a network children's television show, and Roberta has to struggle with her resentment of his success and her failure to continue to paint over the decade she was raising the children.
Karen Woo is the most amorphous of the four main characters: while she lives and thinks in numbers, she does not seem to regret being at home. Her husband is happy with his job, he makes enough money to keep them happy, she continues to go on job interviews but refuses them. There is some attempt to contrast her current life with her mother's life in a restaurant in Chinatown, but it never really comes into focus.
What movement there is in these women's lives comes in the last quarter of the book, if not later. Amy felt herself increasingly distant from her husband, feeling that her life was of no interest to him. Eventually, she discovers her husband passing off personal purchases as business receipts, which forces her to confront the scope of their debt. She finds a job in a small law firm, not because she loves the work, but because they need the income. However, her marriage seems the most honest of the four womens'--at the end, her husband confesses his fears and failures, and the two of them seem to re-commit to each other.
Jill was an academic over-achiever until the failure of her thesis, and she never quite finds something she loves to do. However, she finds herself very busy managing the appointments and therapies for her daughter, and settles into that life--recognizing that it is only for a limited number of years.
Roberta and her family move out of their tiny apartment and buy a house in Harlem, where she can have a studio, but she finds it hard to paint--the studio remains, though largely unused.
We are also treated to vignettes of the generation before theirs--their fathers and mothers, and their dreams and disappointments, as well as cameos of the lives of other women who are peripheral to these four.
On the whole? I'm not certain that it says much at all about where women and work shake out in this new millennium. These women are very privileged, in that they have the option to work or not. We see women who love their jobs, who retain those jobs even while raising children; we see women who have no choice but to work; we see women who did not want to work while their children were small, reaching a point in their lives where the question of work becomes inevitable. Amy is the only one who does return to work, largely because she doesn't have a choice any more. The other women just keep on as they had before.
Furthermore, I kept expecting that the book had reached its natural end, but then it went on for another eight chapters. The writing is cool and distant, and I felt as if Wolitzer was reporting on these women, rather than developing them as characters. There is a lot of self-inflicted angst, as these women seem to take it as given that failing to achieve great success in your 20s means you have failed at life. The book ends up giving everybody a little bit of success by the end--so the reader is left with the distinct sense that things can be really really hard for a long time, but then they get easier, so lighten up.
Perhaps it is the title of this book that raises such expectations that it will illuminate the state of American society and address head on the realities that women face while raising small children. Frankly, the book does not show anyone who manages parenthood without any regrets, whether they stay at work or stay at home. It's really a fairly bleak book, and while interesting, is not a book I would actually recommend that anyone read.