When I was about eight, I had a book about optical illusions. The one that must have most intrigued me-because it's the only one I can clearly remember-was of a young maiden whose delicate jaw and chin became, when you looked at it the right way, the nose of an old hag. Sometimes that's what my life feels like. Taken from one view, my life is full. I have more friends than I have time to see, an apartment with good natural light and a cute dog living in it, and a job that sometimes entails being paid to go to spas. But if you keep looking, you'll see that I don't own my apartment and I struggle to pay my ever-increasing rent, and in what are probably the twilight years of my fertility, I am so single that the guy I'm seeing would probably be horrified by the idea that we're doing something so formal as "casual dating."
I am slouching towards adulthood. I've never been very good at hitting milestones, but here's one: I'm turning 40 this year. As such, I've been thinking a lot about what my life looks like from the outside, and what it feels like on the inside; about the choices I have made, and those I haven't.
There are some 57 million unmarried adult women in the United States, and every year seems to bring a new crop of books trying to make sense of us. On the celebratory end, we have Kate Bolick's 2015 Spinster and Rebecca Traister's 2016 All the Single Ladies, both of which portray the single life as an empowered choice. On the plight-of-the-single-woman end, there are Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Why There Are No Good Men Left (because we educated women are too exacting); Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough; and Creating a Life, by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett-whose research on the supposed unlikeliness of high-achieving women to have a family (there's a 40 percent chance careerists won't have kids, she says) was later called into question in yet another book, Singled Out, by Bella DePaulo, PhD.
I own all of these books. Yet I have not finished a single one of them. For one thing, being endlessly studied and theorized about makes me feel like a panda in captivity being urged to mate. But I also don't know if I identify with any of the women these books describe, whether solidly on Team Single or Team Married. As a friend once pointed out, my own life choices-or lack thereof-tend to be more like that Roy Lichtenstein–style cartoon of a woman, head in hand, captioned, "I can't believe it. I forgot to have children!" If I'm neither pointedly choosing to be a wife or a mother, nor proclaiming myself gleefully unattached, where does that land me?
Well, it seems, in an undefined yet increasingly crowded middle ground, as evidenced by two books out this month: Ariel Levy's much-anticipated memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply (Random House), and Jami Attenberg's sixth novel, All Grown Up (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Neither volume, by the way, is a cultural treatise positing some new theory on singledom-which may be why I devoured both, cover to cover, while alone (sad!) in a hotel room on a Caribbean island (fun!). And yet in both I found evidence of, as Levy puts it, "unconventional female life": two women-one fictional, one vibrantly real-who are single, successful, childless (or child-free, depending on your team), roughly my age, and still very much figuring it out.
In Attenberg's deeply enjoyable All Grown Up, protagonist Andrea Bern is stuck in an extended state of adolescence that could, in a different author's hands, be Bridget Jones–ian: She's underperforming in a job she doesn't really like, having sex with divorced dads who ignore her when she sees them in public, drinking too much. But Attenberg, whose 2012 best-seller, The Middlesteins, established her as a keen, caustic observer of both family ritual and social taboo, tells much of the story through Andrea's sly asides, as she observes friends and family performing rituals of adulthood-getting married, getting divorced, throwing themselves into their careers. When a friend faux-sheepishly announces a pregnancy by not ordering a cocktail, Andrea grimaces: "There is the subtext that you are lucky because you can still drink, and she's unlucky because she can't drink, she has this dumb baby in her."
Andrea is attempting, on her own timeline, to define an elemental self that goes beyond marital status. Problem is, everybody's talking about a new (Bolick-esque?) book in praise of being an unmarried woman. Andrea asks her therapist, "Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me? I'm other things, too." The therapist responds with a question: "Tell me who you are, then. What other statements are true?" A woman, a sister, an aunt, a New Yorker, an advertising designer, Andrea says to the therapist. And a drinker, a former artist, a between-the-sheets shrieker, she says to herself. Soon she's on a date with a guy who tells her she should read-you guessed it-the single-lady book. "I stand before him at the entrance to a subway station, in possession of nothing but myself. Myself is everything, I want to tell him."
"If I added up all the days in the year I wished I were dating somebody, it's, like, three weeks total."
In a phone interview with Attenberg that feels more like a therapy session, I confess to her that lacking traditional benchmarks of adulthood sometimes feels like a thing to celebrate; sometimes it feels pathetic. Attenberg, who is 45 and single, says writing the novel forced her to explore her own relationship with milestones. "I'm not very interested in getting married or having kids. If I added up all the days in the year I wished I were dating somebody, it's, like, three weeks total." (My tally would be more like 12 weeks, but I take her point.) So she set her own milestones: She moved to New Orleans, adopted a dog-her version of settling down and investing in something other than herself. She may not be a mother or a wife, or a poster girl for singledom, but she has a rich life of her own creation.
Levy, for her part, examines the tension between wanting both a life of adventure and the stability of a relationship-autonomy and intimacy-in The Rules Do Not Apply. Her heart-wrenching memoir expands upon her National Magazine Award–winning 2013 essay, "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," published in the New Yorker, where Levy's a staff writer. She'd taken an assignment in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia; it was to be her last big trip before embarking on the adventure of motherhood. At the time, she was 38 and happily encumbered: five months pregnant, married, a homeowner. Within a month, all of those moorings would vanish-starting with her devastating miscarriage, alone in a hotel bathroom on "the edge of the earth," during a trip she took because she liked "the idea of being the kind of woman who'd go to the Gobi Desert pregnant."
"Thanksgiving" was both exquisitely crafted and surprising-a shockingly revealing personal piece from a journalist until then best known for her piercing magazine profiles and her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, about the effects of porn culture. I was so taken with the essay when it originally came out that when I happened to be sent to Mongolia for work soon thereafter, I took a photo of the hotel Levy had stayed in. Looking back, that seems creepy, but I think I wanted her talent to rub off on me, the way one might bid on Jane Austen's pen.
In The Rules Do Not Apply, the author chronicles the construction of the convention-bucking existence she'd always wanted. Levy, by the way, does anything but slouch into adulthood: She finds a way to publish ambitious stories even as an assistant; eventually lands her literal dream job; and, in the middle of a New York City blackout, meets Lucy, the epitome of a life mate, with whom she builds a partnership that reads like my own fantasies come alive-roast chicken for two at the Zuni Café in San Francisco, twilight cocktails on their deck. "We were magic," Levy writes. Which makes it all the more excruciating when she unflinchingly recounts the rapid collapse of that life. After Levy deliberated for years about whether to have a child, enduring the loss of her son-whose tiny, 19-week-gestated self is described in detail, down to his eyebrows-is compounded by the loss of her relationship with Lucy, who had struggled for years with alcoholism. There are trips to rehab, a psych ward, sessions at Al-Anon. Every raw event provides further proof that even when you choose convention and think you've found the answers, there's no guarantee it will last, much less make you "happy." But Levy's book is no cautionary tale. That's partially because she maintains her smart, wry sense of humor; she's still intact. It's also because she just keeps on moving.
Levy starts out, as the book blurb says, as a woman who "wanted what we all want: everything." Late in the book, she writes about asking the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd if she'd ever wanted children. "Everybody doesn't get everything," Dowd told her. Levy writes, "It sounded depressing to me at the time, a statement of defeat. Now admitting it seems an obvious and essential work of growing up. Everybody doesn't get everything: as natural and unavoidable as mortality." Ultimately, Levy doesn't tell us which parts of "everything" she still wants-though she hints at the start of a surprising relationship. Her upended life looks nothing like what she laid the foundation for, but then, there's no cutoff date by which she has to have it all nailed down.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of ELLE.
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