For a long-married couple, it’s natural, if not downright wise, to give some thought to the state of that marriage as you approach middle age. Are you both in it for the long haul? What are you reaping—and relinquishing —by staying in an institution that just under half of couples abandon? Happily, there are trucks full of books, from self-help tomes to literary novels and memoirs, to help one contemplate these questions. (I contributed a couple myself, with the novel Gone and the essay anthology The Bitch is Back.)
Both women cop to messy pasts, complete with drugs, dropping out of college, and serial hooking up/shacking up with wrong men.
The latest additions to the field, both memoirs, are Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Dani Shapiro, and Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, by Claire Dederer—two sophisticated, riveting books that are similar in some ways, very different in others. Both feature long-married professional writers married to same, with both authors mothers of a teen; both women cop to messy pasts, complete with drugs, dropping out of college, and serial hooking up/shacking up with wrong men. Both express appreciation for the comfort, steady love, and even “constraint” (Dederer’s word, and a good one) of marriage, and both offer plenty of midlife rumination and wisdom.
But while Hourglass is a slim, poetic volume as polished as the honey-hued author photo of its creator, Love and Trouble—dirtier, edgier, more sprawling—is like the darker bad-girl equivalent: a blunt, ballsy read in which the author’s own hot-mess wildness, and what to do with it in middle age, is the meat of the book.
An Overzealous Libido
Dederer’s memoir—her second after Poser, in 2012—is primarily about sex: specifically, her overzealous libido and the sudden resurfacing of those feelings, in married midlife, that in her teen and young adult years on created the “disastrous pirate slut of a girl” she was in ‘70s/’80s/’90s Seattle. Her book opens with basic midlife crisis fare: at 44 she’s noticed diminishing sanity, energy, competence, and of course looks, even as her 12-year-old daughter grows “more beautiful every day,” as if “coolly lit from within by some tiny inner moon.” Dederer’s physical demise combines with nonstop crying (a condition she shares with her friends of the same age); a “slew of inappropriate email friendships with men”; and a desire to Take To Her Bed—which she eventually does for a year.
Once this not-so-pretty picture of the present is painted, Dederer delves deep into her past, both distant and recent, which she uses to contemplate big-deal, stuff-of-life questions, personal and general: What caused her hypersexuality? Possibilities: her mother’s leaving her father for a younger, male hippy, who moved into Dederer’s childhood home; said hippy’s adult male friend crawling into her sleeping bag when she was 13 and jacking off against her naked thigh; the permissiveness combined with sexual awakening of the ‘70s; the author’s desire, once she realizes that females are more vulnerable, to identify with all things male; all of the above.
An Achievement or a Curse?
Why are these urges back now, in midlife—and what to do about them? Is a marriage that’s based on “usefulness”—one in which “you think about each other’s needs,” you “cover the bases”— “an achievement or a curse”? And is it okay, in midlife, to go alone to a party, get shit-faced on bourbon, make out with a newly divorced female friend, drive home drunk, and confess it all to your saint of a husband?
Dederer spills her life in vivid detail, from early years of sexcapades and dangerous travel to her midlife-mother-on-book-tour S&M fantasy at a DoubleTree hotel.
Dederer spills her life in vivid detail, from early years of sexcapades and dangerous travel to her midlife-mother-on-book-tour S&M fantasy at a DoubleTree hotel. But wait—is that last thing a fantasy, or something that actually happened? She titles the chapter “Uchronia,” a term that suggests an idealized or fictional conception, but she also makes it ambiguous. Ditto her portrayal of where her marriage is going; she hints that her husband, Bruce, is also not content at this point with their monogamous marriage—and she suggests that they might be “figure[ing] out a different way to be married”—but she doesn’t make clear what that might actually be. It seems a tad unfair for an author to take us this far in a sexual memoir and then be this coy. Still, there’s humor, wisdom, and some truly great writing in this romp of a book.
The Soul Mate
Shapiro, in contrast, is rarely ambiguous in her book; in sleek, crafted sections sandwiched between space breaks, she opens her marriage, heart, and bank statements to her reader, as if to say: Here I am, doing my best, but I’m still terrified. Shapiro, who grew up in a Jewish New Jersey household—and who wrote three memoirs before this one—is less focused on sex (in fact, it’s barely mentioned) than on midlife love and work, family and the “velocity of time.”
At 52, married for 18 years and grateful for her beloved soul-mate husband (“M.” in the book) and spirited son, Shapiro is worried about money and aging, illness and accidents and who will take care of her as she heads into and beyond later midlife. M., once an award-winning foreign correspondent, gave up his career—partly, if not mostly, at her urging—to become a husband, father, and at-home screenwriter in their rural Connecticut home. But over time he’s had many near-misses and few home runs in fickle, despicable Hollywood, and now, pushing sixty, he’s “struggling with his own wounded spirit,” his fire starting to fade.
Shapiro, for her part, is a remarkably successful author (she’s published nine books, appeared in The New Yorker, been interviewed by Oprah). But she has learned that writing books “is no longer a way to make a living,” and for years has supplemented her writing with teaching, speaking, even working briefly for a pharmaceutical company. Increasingly, she feels anxious and fried.
A Roller Coaster Former Life
Some of her anxiety may stem from her roller coaster former life. Her early adulthood included two brief, failed marriages before 30; an affair with her college best friend’s married father, a wealthy New York lawyer who kept her in furs and a downtown apartment after she dropped out of college; and in her early twenties, her parents’ catastrophic car accident. Later, her son developed a near-fatal illness in infancy, discovered only after a babysitter dropped him down a flight of stairs.
“Tell me everything’s going to be okay,” Shapiro repeatedly begs her husband.
Accustomed to nice things, from exotic travel to beautiful homes, meals, clothing, jewelry, furniture—and having watched both of her parents die and her mother-in-law succumb to Alzheimer’s—she fears what’s on the horizon. She wants to be taken care of—“ Tell me everything’s going to be okay,” she repeatedly begs M.—but also has realized she might always be the one earning most of the money. And it may not be enough. “We have no savings, no retirement plan,” she says (rather astonishingly, given the first-world, if hard-working, life she’s lead). “Some months, we are barely able to pay our bills…We have nothing to fall back on but each other.”
The Binding and Bonding
Yet over and over, she makes it clear that through the hate and the ugliness, the resentment and regret that no long-term marriage can avoid, love is always there for them, binding and bonding. “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror,” she quotes Rilke as saying, and clearly she’s done just that, in both marriage and life. And while her anxiety about where this has taken her is deep and constant, she also regrets nothing. She is who she is because of the road she’s traveled, and she and M. share that “third thing” that the poet Donald Hall describes as being “essential” to marriages: places or people or practices that “provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.”
She and her husband share something the poet Donald Hall describes as being “essential” to marriages: places or people or practices that “provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.”
As someone in a similar life situation as both of these authors (midlife writer married to another of same, now grown-up kids) but slightly older than Shapiro and a chunk older than Dederer, particularly in the period she’s writing about, I can’t help wondering how much of the difference in subject matter and even, to some extent, in tone in these books has to do with age. Dederer’s is a memoir of the forties, a time, for most women, of still ample estrogen and, often, the reawakening of the sexual self after years of being zapped and zombied by raising young kids. There’s sometimes an almost desperation to want to do it/get it/be it while you still can.
Are Secrets Allowed?
In one’s fifties, in contrast—or at least in mine and those of my friends—sexual desire and its attendant mishegas (read: the fantasy of hot sex with someone who’s not your husband) takes a backseat to the personal affairs of menopause (hot flashes, whitening hair, body parts that don’t do what they used to). We focus on adjusting ourselves and our marriages to a home without kids, and the idea that, in a world that’s both fast-changing and obsessed with youth, we’re becoming less and less employable, among other things.
Will she cheat on him for real (if she hasn’t already)? Leave him for her female best friend, with whom she travels and shares real intimacy?
Put another way: Reading Love and Trouble, which took Dederer five years to write, I wondered what the book might have been if she’d waited a few more years to end it, The ambivalence she still feels about sex and her marriage—which to me is likely why she made parts of this book ambiguous—might have grown into the wisdom of having figured all this out. Or at least she might no longer hunger for things she can’t have within the confines of marriage (not, anyway, without breaking some rules—and the fallout of that).
“It’s okay to have secrets,” Bruce says to her, but what those secrets are remains vague, and what they’ll lead to, we, like she, doesn’t yet know. Will she cheat on him for real (if she hasn’t already)? Leave him for her female best friend, with whom she travels and shares real intimacy? Guess we’ll have to wait for the memoir of her fifties or sixties—or seventies or eighties—to find out.