Someone asked me once if I was a spinster; I was 25 at the time and already married, but I had told this awkward teenager that I was closing up his high school library for an hour so I could go home and feed my cat. This combination of library career and feline companion was all he needed to hear (although in the end he got an earful anyway).
“Spinster” is a memoir by journalist Kate Bolick, and with this book she seeks to appropriate that term from an insult to a way of life. Describing her personal journey from a woman who hasn’t “yet” married to a woman who has decided not to get married, or a “girl bachelor,” Bolick also conjures the lives of five women from history. She calls them her “awakeners” and they are Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Bolick takes us through her formative twenties, including the death of her mother, which makes her consider the ever-present conundrum of motherhood versus career. She gets the notion that she can achieve what her mother couldn’t if she remains unmarried and, gradually, as she ends several promising romantic relationships, seeks “spinsterhood” as an active choice, not a result of bad luck.
She makes a good case for her own version of the single life: glamourous, successful and quintessentially urban. Her description of glorious solitude was pretty seductive. I think that readers who feel a personal connection to Bolick’s experience would enjoy this book the most. Despite the tacked-on historical context, however, “Spinster” fails to make a significant addition to the broader cultural conversation. But, hey, that’s fine with me; I kind of hate the broader cultural conversation. It’s so acrimonious. Any controversy surrounding “Spinster,” to my eyes, begins and ends with the title itself.
This is a personal story about one person’s life; attempts to place Bolick’s life in a broader social context are where the book is its weakest. At one point in her story, Bolick stays in a writer’s colony and tries (and fails) to launch this very book project. I sensed that she struggled to eventually flesh out her own ideas about spinsterhood into a book-length project, because it’s really two books.
One book is an engaging story about a smart lady growing up and finding various jobs and apartments. The other book is about five smart ladies from history, and their various unusual personal lives. I liked both of these books, but they don’t always meld together well. At one point, Kate Bolick marvels that one of her “awakeners” had moved to New York City to be a writer, and that she herself had done the exact same thing. This is hardly a chill-bump-inducing moment of coincidence — it’s New York City, everybody moves there to be a writer.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of thoughtful moments in this memoir, even if the project does suffer from something of an identity crisis. Rather than make sweeping statements about the current state of single women, Bolick focuses on her own story and, for perspective, looks to the past rather than the present or future. I was particularly interested to learn about Maeve Brennan, a writer for the New Yorker who sounds like a fabulous eccentric and unfortunately ended her life as a bag lady.
“Spinster” might not be earth shattering, but it does inspire further reading and thinking. I believe I enjoyed the “spinster kit” I downloaded on www.katebolick.com as much as I did the entire book. You need Edna St. Vincent Millay paper dolls, and the Recommended Reading from the five “awakeners” is wonderful. I hope no one feels that a woman’s desire to remain single should ignite a debate, but I do think that “Spinster” is worth a meaningful read and a thoughtful conversation.
Making a Life of One’s Own
Crown: 308 pp., $26