Reviewed by By Robert Long Foreman
Sometimes, when my daughter is screaming in the kitchen (more shrilly than I knew a person could scream a mere three years ago), thanks to some offense I’ve just committed (such as unballing her socks when all along she had wanted to do it, and it doesn’t work to simply reball them so that she can undo them herself, because the damage is irreversible), I wonder what my life would look like had I not had children. What, I wonder, would one do in one’s thirties, if not suffer the rage of toddlers?
At the culmination of her third decade, Atlantic contributing editor Kate Bolick has written Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which, among other things, seeks to answer the question I ask myself when my daughter screams. More ambitiously, it makes me ask a question we no longer ask of people—women, in particular—who have lived out their thirties without becoming wives and mothers.
The way in which I’ve just constructed that sentence, in my effort to describe the subject of Bolick’s book, is telling; I couldn’t do it without using the word “without”—without defining the single woman of a certain age by what she does not have. This is a problem, suggests Bolick in Spinster. “In spite of her prevalence,” she writes, “the single woman is nearly always considered an anomaly, an aberration from the social order.” Bolick admits that, as she began her inquiry into the subject, “I found I wasn’t even sure what a single woman is, exactly.” When she goes looking for a legal definition of the single woman, she mentions, in a parenthetical aside, “(Note that even the law defines a single woman by what she lacks.).”
Like any good book, Spinster is many things, but it is in large part an effort to replace our fundamentally negative description of the single woman with a positive one, not only in the sense of peeling back the layers of judgment and scorn that our flawed world lavishes on the woman who has chosen to live singly, but more so in the sense that it gives us examples of women who lived without spouses or children for much or all of their lives, and accomplished quite a lot—thanks, Bolick argues, to those choices.
These women are Bolick’s “awakeners,” writers all: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Most were not actually spinsters, having married at some point, quite young in Wharton’s case. But the five had in common “a highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage, the opportunity to articulate this ambivalence, and whiteness—each of which, arguably, was inextricable from the rest.” Bolick qualifies their homogeneity by adding that “vanishingly few women of color were given the privilege to write and publish and, therefore, speak across the decades,” adding later that “the political, social, and economic forces that shape the African-American single experience is an entire book unto itself.” This seems fair enough to me, even if I would have liked to see Bolick describe those political, social and economic forces. It is tempting to wonder what a Spinster chapter on Octavia Butler would look like.
Speculation like this, however, is beside the point, owing in part to the autobiographical nature of Spinster. As Bolick tells it, she did not choose her awakeners so much as she discovered their worlds overlapped and saw herself reflected in them. Most inhabited the same settings she has, namely Boston and New York, more specifically, in some cases, the culture of nationally distributed magazine production. Bolick grew up in a small town in Massachusetts where Millay herself once lived, which she uses to establish a convincing rapport between them.
In keeping with the book’s autobiographical nature, patterned together with her engaging study of the five awakeners is an account of Bolick’s life as a single woman. We follow her through her twenties and thirties as she draws parallels between her experience and those of her forebearers, working to fill the vacuum that constitutes our collective understanding of the single woman’s life. That life, Bolick’s narrative implies, is not a blank space in which the husband and children are missing, but years of hard work, accomplishment, and meaningful connections with other people—romantic and not.
Bolick’s life, as it is represented here, is not without tragedy. Early in the narrative, she describes how, at the start of her twenties, her mother succumbed to cancer. It is an event that would seem to necessitate the entry of the awakeners as paradoxical mother figures; for the most part they did not bear children while Bolick is newly bereft of a mother when she begins adopting them.
Bolick’s life so far comes across as a good one: she has a series of fulfilling relationships without having to compromise her resolution not to marry, goes on enviable vacations, goes to the MacDowell Colony, lives in what she describes convincingly as a great apartment (it is written up in a design magazine), and achieves (through grueling labor) the writer-editor life that many dream of. By page 233, she has “the comfort of a big, steady salary; incredible benefits; an expense account; authority.” This is upended in the following chapter, but she recovers quickly, and at that point my skepticism barges in, roaring that the insights offered up in Spinster might actually not be universally applicable—that maybe it’s not so great to be a single woman in her thirties if you live in a suburb of Duluth and your arms have just fallen off so that you’ve lost your job opening difficult jars and can’t make the rent on your own. I am not my roaring skepticism; it is only one part of me; but I am left to wonder: is Spinster a book that confirms that this is a good time in history to be a single woman who is determined to stay single, or does it confirm that this is a good time in history to be Kate Bolick, who, early in her career, applied for an internship at The Atlantic and was offered a steady job there instead, which is not something that happens to most people?
However, even as I voice my doubts, I do think it’s the former. I have little in common with Bolick—for example, I am a man—but reading Spinster has reminded me (how readily I forgot it!) that throughout my twenties, as I went on dates, marriage was always—always—in the back of my mind. I considered it, without really considering it, an inevitability. I would not say that I was looking for a wife—that would be awfully eighteenth-century of me—but I did operate under the assumption that marriage was a necessary thing, that it was something I was headed toward. I think my twenties would have been better, certainly less anxious, had I not let marriage loom in my future the way it did, had it not colored so much of my pre-married life—had I read a book that extolled living alone as this one does.
Spinster seeks, among other things, to free us of that looming future. Or, more specifically, to free straight women of it, who I don’t doubt are far more harassed by it than I was. I can honestly say, now that I am living it, that marriage is lovely: my wife seems to like it too, and my kids are great, despite the sock thing. But it wasn’t worth all the worry, and there is no sense in scorning people who don’t get screamed at by toddlers (which, for the record, I have never done, though I have envied them). As Bolick confirms for us, single folk are not divergent; those married and those single are on tracks that run parallel. And it seems to me that anyone who is about to enter his or her adult life would benefit substantially from reading this book, from taking a glimpse at what just a handful of remarkable women, Bolick included, have accomplished when living the single life that is available to them.
Robert Long Foreman is from Wheeling, West Virginia. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Copper Nickel, Redivider, Booth, The Utne Reader, Fourth Genre, and the 2014 Pushcart anthology. He is The Cossack Review’s Fiction Editor, and teaches creative writing and literature at Rhode Island College.