Before launching into a review of Annabelle Gurwitch's book of essays about life for women on the edge of 50, I See You Made an Effort, it's best to get certain matters out of the way for arguably required disclosure. I'm female and I turned 44 last month. I may not be as close to the mid-century mark as Gurwitch, but I could still relate to a fair share of content in her book. What I couldn't personally relate to I still found funny, often hilarious, and surprisingly wrenching in one section, which I'll return to later.
An actress and humorist, Gurwitch previously co-authored a marital memoir, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, with her husband. She also co-hosted TBS's Dinner & a Movie and appeared in shows including Boston Legal, Seinfeld, and Not Necessarily the News on HBO.
My apologies to Ms. Gurwitch, but I wasn't familiar with her work before starting this book, which might have freed it from lofty expectations but also made me wary. I prepared myself for fits and starts of funny, with not-so-funny, or forced funny, in between. To my relief and delight, I laughed pretty much all the way through. I even read passages out loud to my husband.
In these sixteen essays, which draw from her personal and work experiences, Gurwitch attests that "the business of getting old" should not only be an actual tax write-off but is also fraught with, amidst other irritations, liquid concealers that cost the exact same amount per ounce as beluga caviar and unwanted chin hairs she describes as an "equal opportunity offender."
One essay delves into the "inexplicable vagaries" of online dating for women in their forties and fifties. Gurwitch gets a look behind the scenes (or maybe I should say screens) when she's assigned the story for a women's magazine. One of her sources refers to herself as a "Love Coach" and says her work is "on the cutting edge of feminism." During a "Magical Mani-festing Makeover" workshop, she wears a scent she's created called Vulvacious and expects her clients to wear higher heels, show more cleavage, and don more pink in their "candid shots" for dating sites.
Gurwitch is perhaps at her self-deprecating best when she writes about her acting career, which she admits has "middled." Cast as a "marauding villager" in a commercial that takes place during the Middle Ages, she's required to appear "unkempt" and "disheveled." Gurwitch doesn't specify the company, but she includes a hierarchy breakdown for people in show business. With 16 on the list (movie and TV stars are in the top spots), "Actress over the age of 50" is dead last, behind "Starbucks barista" and "Sloth."
Other subjects she expounds upon include plastic surgery, nonsurgical face-lifts ("I've had things injected into my face I wouldn't clean my house with," she admits), along with the image versus reality of meditation. She makes an effort to calm her middle-aged, "raving maniac" mind and is informed by her teenage son that the practice doesn't make her appear calm but weird. "It's like you had a psychotic break," he tells her.
She also writeswith great specificity in a few spotsabout sex. (Some readers may prefer a little more left to the imagination). Personally, I thought one of the essays in which she fantasizes about sex with a 26-year-old staff member at her local Apple Store Genius Bar in California to be outrageously funny, not (thankfully) outrageously icky. The youngling's name is AuDum. Pronounced autumn, he says, "Like the season." In her fantasy of seduction, she makes a mental note of turn-off topics of conversation, like films about senior citizens falling in love at resorts in India, anything with Meryl Streep, and the current book she's reading titled Why Men Die First.
One essay veers into serious territory. It centers on Gurwitch's friend who has pancreatic cancer, "one of those no-one-gets-out-of-here-alive cancers." About the experience of witnessing her friend's struggle, Gurwitch writes, "What is the right word for the complete absence of anything funny?" Yet, astonishingly, she and her friends (including her ill friend) find funny moments throughout the ordeal. Here, Gurwitch beautifully balances pathos and comedy, attributable to what I'm going to define as her maturity instead of her age.
The question, however, remains: Will this bookand Gurwitch's brand of humorappeal to all women? I pondered this awhile and I'll leave it at this. No matter what your age, if you like your comedy subtle, even on the dry side, these essays may not be for you. But if you're searching for unsparing, often hysterical frankness, I See You Made an Effort just might reflect some of your own experiences or serve as reassurance that what's ahead may not be so bad, as long as you do what Gurwitch's gynecologist told her: Stay funny.
This review was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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