Wolitzer’s engaging novel focuses on women who are breathtakingly educated and fully prepared to fill the most-rigorous roles in the workplace, but who nevertheless spend a good portion of what might have been peak career-building time fully engrossed in child-rearing and homemaking. They have the resources—both external and internal—to be well-satisfied by such a course. At the same time, though, these women are the most inclined to doubt and wonder: having had the opportunity to make any choice at all, did they make the right one? And once they no longer have “the excuse of having a young child at home to use as a human shield against all questions about what [they] ‘did,’” what then? With a light but needle-sharp touch and in a tone at once thoughtful and witty, Wolitzer explores this theme from nearly every possible angle. The cast of this richly peopled story features a group of likable friends in contemporary Manhattan with a wide range of talents and backgrounds, but also reaches back to include their mothers and out to incorporate a friend who has moved to the suburbs. Throughout, Wolitzer draws both fine and significant distinctions as she identifies types that her readers will recognize: the artist who didn’t have the necessary single-minded drive; the promising student who lost her way once she finished her classes; the English major who pragmatically chose the “enclosed pasture” of law school over the “open field” of literature. Her characters never collapse into stereotype. Among working mothers, for instance, she distinguishes between those in whom the strain was obvious—“they had folders clutched in one hand and a child’s science project involving a potato and a battery in the other”—and the occasional, depressingly enviable one who managed to be feminine and maternal while possessing “power in the hard-shelled, armed male world.” All of Wolitzer’s characters are so articulate and insightful that it’s a pleasure to listen to them think. Whether depicting the subtle cues lovers emit to drive away intruders, or worries about a child who for no specific reason doesn’t seem quite right, or the distinct motivations different women have for opting out of the workforce, or the sort of well-intentioned but inadequate present a husband would be likely to select for his child’s private-school teacher (a Whitman’s Sampler), Wolitzer’s scenes are intensely observed and nuanced. Although “What now, at 40?” is the chief question of the novel, Wolitzer also delves deep into female friendships, relationships between women and their growing children, marriage, and the rewards and lack thereof that come with paid employment.
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