Our Houses, Our Selves

A new crop of books suggests that for women, obsession with real estate is replacing obsession with love and marriage.
Kim Rosen

There’s a scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage in which Gilbert visits a hut full of Hmong women and asks them some leading Elizabeth Gilbert questions. These include “What did you think of your husband, the first time you ever met him?” and “Where did you first meet your husband?” and “When did you fall in love with him?” At this line of inquiry, the previously convivial Hmong now fall into silence, shifting, puzzlement: these are details so unmemorable to them that they literally can’t remember. And at this moment, the famously footloose (now famously married) writer has a revelation:

Neither the grandmother nor any other woman in that room was placing her marriage at the center of her emotional biography in any way that was remotely familiar to me. In the modern industrialized Western world, where I come from, the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality. Your spouse becomes the most gleaming possible mirror through which your emotional individualism is reflected back to the world … So if you ask any typical modern Western woman how she met her husband, when she met her husband, and why she fell in love with her husband, you can be plenty sure that you will be told a complete, complex, and deeply personal narrative which that woman has not only spun carefully around the entire experience, but which she has memorized, internalized, and scrutinized for clues as to her own selfhood.

In short, Gilbert concludes wonderingly, none of these Hmong women were “crafting the character of ‘the husband’” into either the hero or the villain in some vast, complex, and epic Story of the Emotional Self.

Are the Hmong in fact onto something? Would American women be wise to follow suit? In 2010, is it finally time for us to give up our keening, fraught, repetitive Narratives of the Husband (Good, Bad, or Lack Thereof)?

My journalist friend Steven thinks so. “There is too much nattering-on about marriage today, it is all done by women, and it is absolutely excruciating,” he declared recently, while helping me sort and toss my recycling—old issues of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, a range of magazines, from The Economist (why do we get this?) to, embarrassingly enough (Tiger Woods, Elizabeth Edwards), People. Sure, Steven continues bitterly, he could pick apart his own long-term marriage, but he doesn’t. If male authors wrote half the things about their wives that female authors wrote about their husbands, he says, they’d be run out of town! Citing Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine cover story detailing her own marital therapy blow by blow, Steven exclaims: “Good Lord—at one point she complains about her husband’s COOKING! He’s a great cook, sure, makes great meals, but she feels—boo hoo!—that he lingers too long in the kitchen and buys too many expensive ingredients! Meanwhile, a wife can gain 30 pounds during pregnancy, keep it on for decades, and God FORBID the husband ever utters a peep about it. A peep!” (Meaningfully, he taps the People with Elizabeth Edwards on the cover.)

He doesn’t have to point out that I am among the guilty, a woman writer who has gone on and on about men and marriage, in these very pages. But I have since moved on, as does life: my divorce papers are final; I parent my children; I’ve even bought my own house. And not just any house. Thanks to a bad economy, plunging interest rates, and a deeply depressed market, I lowballed by $150,000—and got—one of the many short-saled real-estate whales flopping around in the sea of California foreclosures. My house is not just a circa 1904/2008 renovation, yuppie, Craftsman fantasy (burnished wood paneling, hexagonal tile, monstrous Viking range, Precision Steel wine cooler); it seems extraordinarily giant, at least for a person who had lived for 20 years in a 1,300-square-foot bungalow. Waking every morning in this turn-of-the-century three-floor four-square is surreal; I call going downstairs to get coffee “visiting Base Camp 1.” And yet, because the down payment emptied me of every last penny and because (since my old house was long paid off) the new $2,200-a-month mortgage seems astronomical (are you listening, Ben Schwarz?), I am now house-rich and cash-poor.

Like Gone With the Wind–style carpetbaggers who hastily, as in some mix-up, took possession of the fancy manse of a suddenly destitute aristocratic family, we use the massive Viking range to make humble tuna melts, the fancy steam shower houses big-buy Prell, and the red LED of the wine cooler winks over only the most dubious $4.99 Australian shirazes (and that’s for a half gallon). I am no expert on all this whisper-shut cabinetry, but I’m quite sure this house was not designed as a necropolis for jug wines whose labels feature kangaroos or for dining-room chairs bought off the street for $7. (A Mexican busboy had inherited them from Coco’s Family Restaurant when it remodeled—yes, these spindly wooden chairs are rejects from a 1960s chain diner, but if you squint, I think, they look almost … Shakeresque!)

“And did you see that write-up of Lori Gottlieb’s book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough?” Steven pushes on, while I sit on the stoop and sort catalogs from, ooh, Restoration Hardware (10 percent off!). Ah, the swan-necked Mission- style lamps with their antique-like glass, ornate doorknobs, chrome towel racks, needlessly complex apothecary-style soap dispensers. I can’t buy any of it, but I like to leave these catalogs lying around. “Good grief!” Steven wends on. “As far as I can tell, books like these seem to be written mostly for 40-something women who have to date 65-year-old bald guys in bow ties named Sheldon from Match.com with three adult children … So what? Why are women still so obsessed with MEN?”

At which point I look up. “I think you’re wrong,” I say, putting down my catalog. “I think middle-aged female readers’ tastes are actually shifting away from the marriage plot.” In Committed, Gilbert, our foremost village bardess, stands in the public square and, like some trance-driven Hmong medicine woman, armed with only her staggering advance, unintentionally clubs the idea of marriage finally to death. Indeed, it seems to me that women out to commit these days are hunting for something a bit more stable than marriage. Look at The Three Weissmanns of Westport—Cathleen Schine’s popular recent novel, which, Steven recalls from the big front-of-the–NYT Book Review ad, is “an update of Sense and Sensibility.” “Well, it isn’t,” I say. In the end, The Three Weissmanns is less about who ends up with the men than who ends up with the real estate. You feel a satisfying closure, not because the aging, philandering father ever returns (which he doesn’t) but because the unusually capacious Central Park West family apartment reverts to the proper and properly manicured hands of the three Weissmann women. Now, Manhattan real estate itself has always been a major character in American fiction. How about Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby? Page one, Rosemary has fallen in love with—and must have—an apartment in a Victorian building called the Bramford because of, you remember, those stunning high ceilings. Who cares if a New York co-op is a nest of Satanists? Magical light! High ceilings!

“But it’s not just books,” I persist. “Look at today’s movies. First, wait, oh my God, Meryl Streep is in every single movie now! It’s all Meryl, all the time! What does that mean?” (Even Steven has to agree with me here: his wife is so Streep-obsessed that after a tough week she will wordlessly take a bowl of yogurt and granola into the bedroom, slide in her Julie & Julia DVD—an artisanal shingle of Streep—and fast-forward through the non-Streep parts.) Even when she’s married, she isn’t really married. After all, which of us perimenopausal addicts of Streep soft porn didn’t enjoy Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Paul Child, doe-eyed and dapper, with his vague and non-taxing Parisian diplomat job, hovering reverently like a gymnast below La Streep, catching her hand, lifting her, supporting her—not so much husband as deft pixie. And look at It’s Complicated, the latest, totally satisfying Nancy Meyers fantasy. Here Streep plays a divorced professional chef who’s rhapsodically remodeling her probably $10 million Santa Barbara home, in particular the already gorgeous kitchen—which represents not 1950s female drudgery but 21st- century female creativity, entrepreneurial success, a place to ply one’s charming, attractive, conveniently grown-up children with comfort food, and of course an arena for chocolate-infused middle-of-the-night sensuality. Into Streep’s already-perfect world swans the rakish ex, Alec Baldwin. Yonder mopes the soulful architect, Steve Martin. Streep boffs both, sends Baldwin home, and at film’s end, makes no promises to the lovelorn Martin except that she will permit him to continue, on contract, updating her kitchen. You go, girl! This plot is at least more man-friendly than that of a galley that came to me recently called The Season of Second Chances, by Diane Meier—another novel a certain stripe of not-aged-but-wonderfully-seasoned-middle-aged lady might read on her Adirondack chaise under a pashmina throw at her shabby-chic Westport beach house—in which our midlife heroine moves from New York to the country, buys a charming, collapsing Victorian, has an affair with the buff young handyman who lovingly updates the Victorian, and when the remodeling is done, triumphantly … dumps the handyman! (Perhaps because—fatal contracting flaw—he forgot to ensure his tenure by outfitting the master bath with those de rigueur double oversize Kohler bowl sinks!)

Indeed, when you juxtapose this raft of juicy/midlife/regrets-I’ve-had-a-few-but-I-still-have-great-skin women’s tales (whose happy endings do not necessitate a marriage) with the lone jeremiad Marry Him (which does), it becomes clear that for more and more second-act women, our hottest new womanly romance is with real estate. As far as fantasy excitement goes, could real estate, indeed, be considered the new sex? It makes total sense for Streep-set females of a certain age, those Women of Independent—or at least Quasi-Independent—Means. Because never mind the fact that we feel bad about our neck, our purse, or the fact that the stylish pumps we love are less Jimmy Choo than Stuart Weitzman and Donald J. Pliner (names that call to mind kindly if dome-pated gynecologists). Schoolgirls at heart, we remain optimistic that even after 40, we can be forever rebirthed (or at least repeeled), everything can be reinvented, the best is yet to come. Whatever the problem, we can engineer the solution—we just need to roll up our sleeves, invoke a panel of experts, troll for the best price online, rearrange, rehydrate, tinker, fix, hammer. Such continual resculpting may be irksome if the vessel of our current and future happiness is an actual male, particularly if he has to be our age and available, since in this apocalyptic Obama-era marriage economy, he will likely be less George Clooney than Maurice Tempelsman—if ill-mannered and without the fortune. Anyway, how much of modern dating is merely a search for a Man to plug into the glorious Life we can already describe—the wine tastings, walks on the beach, jazz music, NYT crossword on Sunday mornings? To all that, isn’t the Tucci to our Streep (with his sweater around his neck, reverently tasting our bouillabaisse from a distant kettle) just the garnish? Why should we struggle so hard to unsnarl the morose, sciatica-bound knot that is our eHarmony Sheldon (who may not acquiesce to even the most basic maintenance couple’s therapy—some of them don’t!) when, like Meyers with her wide-angle, summer-hued lens, we can construct our own soft-focus existence in the arms of “a stately Victorian,” “charming Craftsman,” or even “rambling mid-century stunner with great bones,” who—er, I mean, that—just needs a bit of tasteful updating? As the years grind on, Sheldon will only continue to physically collapse, as opposed to a house, whose luster just improves with age. A 100-year-old farmhouse? Make it 200! Even 300! Original hardware! Wide-plank floors!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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