“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!
And what’s more fun than falling madly in love with a piece of real estate? Nowhere is this more vividly described than in Meghan Daum’s wry new memoir, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, a (nearly) man-free romance that could easily spark a new genre: My House, My Self. Here Daum, who is a friendly acquaintance of mine, exposes the modern real-estate-mad female underground, where open houses (visited in rabid two-women teams) are a seasonal blood sport; where Zillow is a verb; where we may “stage” our very bodies in arty, tenty ballet tops (from an online clothier soothingly named Soft Surroundings); where remodeling a collapsing Nebraska farmhouse into a writer’s retreat could instantly, we imagine, transform us into the George Plimpton of the prairie. When she does finally commit to a man, it’s to get parking. In Daum’s life, one of continual and energetic cross-country moving, the search for the perfect domicile is less practical than wildly emotional—so emotional that at times she has literally no room for any other relationships. Says Daum:
Moving, like chocolate and sunshine, stirs up many of the same chemicals you ostensibly produce when you’re in love. At least it does for me. Like a new lover, a new house opens a floodgate of anticipation and trepidation and terrifying expectations fused with dreamy distractions. It’s all encompassing and crazy making. You can’t concentrate at work … you meet your friends for lunch and can speak only of your closet space. No wonder I hadn’t needed sex. I was drowning in the eros of real estate.
She traces this (and shouldn’t there be a German word for it?) hauslust to her bohemian-spirited mother, who grew up alongside Daum’s bohemian-spirited (if not in the same way, and here was the rub) father in the disappointingly suburban southern Illinois town of Carbondale. Daum’s mother always yearned for a more glamorous, sophisticated, vaguely New York life, and “her primary means of expression for this ambition [was] houses.” Daum’s mother’s quest for self-transformation reaches an apex when, upon Daum’s departure for college, she finally moves out. The family-free home she chooses is a
Tudor-style duplex, a House and Garden–worthy abode exploding with color and art and flowers and light streaming through the sunroom windows and Sondheim music streaming through the Bose stereo. She has remade herself. She is a busy, animated, unattached woman with busy, animated friends and tickets to concerts and paintings made by artists she knows.
Writes Daum about her own house quest, in the career way station of Los Angeles,
Most shatteringly, [I found] a rustic, bohemian Craftsman-cum-hunter’s cabin with skylights, sleeping lofts, and a pool that, with about $300,000 worth of foundation work, would have been more right for me than my very own skin. Unfortunately, [it] turned out to be right for people with about twice as much money to spend as I had.
Because herein lies the problem, in the non–Nancy Meyers/Meryl Streep/Steve Martin/Santa Barbara fantasy world. None of us has that unlimited cash river!