BookBrowse Reviews Spinster by Kate Bolick

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Making a Life of One's Own

by Kate Bolick

Spinster by Kate Bolick X
Spinster by Kate Bolick
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2015, 336 pages
    Apr 2016, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Through examples from the past and from her own history, memoirist Kate Bolick points out that not every woman has to participate in the institution of marriage to be emotionally fulfilled.

"Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman's existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn't have their own problems; this isn't one of them." This provocative pronouncement is how Kate Bolick opens her combination memoir Spinster, which is in large part an attempt to imagine the outcomes if women were to refuse to define themselves in terms of those two questions — in short, to imagine a different narrative for the shape of their lives. Bolick tells her own story and those of the "foremothers" who have inspired her to live her life the way it has evolved.

Growing up in a picturesque town on the north shore of Massachusetts, Bolick had a relatively conventional childhood and adolescence, complete with the usual teenage dramas of first loves and heartbreaks. The death of her mother from breast cancer when Bolick was fresh out of college and living for a short time on the other side of the country, prompted her to move back to the East Coast, taking jobs first at The Atlantic and later entering a graduate writing program at New York University, all the while working on her freelance writing and criticism and going through a series of long-term boyfriends. Bolick could certainly have "settled down" with any one of these young men; over time though, she began to wonder whether she might be happier — not to mention more productive and a better friend and writer — being single. As Bolick moved through her twenties and solidly into her thirties, her choice to remain uncoupled became increasingly unconventional — but did it have to be such an oddity?

As Bolick struggled to understand — and, on some level, rationalize — her choices, she found herself looking to the examples of five "awakeners," all talented women whose creativity and professional success were independent of their marital status. Coincidentally, most of these women came from New England, and four out of five were redheads, like Bolick herself. Interspersed with anecdotes from Bolick's own life, then, are the life stories of these so-called awakeners: the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (see 'Beyond the Book'), the novelists Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the essayist Maeve Brennan, and the columnist Neith Boyce. In some cases (especially those of Brennan and Boyce), Bolick rescues these figures from relative obscurity; in others, she merely revisits these literary mentors in the context of their personal lives, finding an unexpected connection, for example, to Edith Wharton when she discovers a shared aptitude for interior design.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Bolick, having lost her mother at such a young age, turns to these literary forebears to provide strength and solace as well as examples of new ways of being. She also continually returns to the idea of her lost mother, finding to her surprise that she is still learning things about her mother even years after her death — discovering not only some discouraging secrets about her parents' marriage but also, for example, that her mother co-wrote a bodice-ripper-style romance, one in which (you guessed it) the confident and sexually fulfilled heroine is a happily single woman living in the city. Throughout Bolick's account, the reader can't help but be aware of the absence of her mother: "She'd raised me in her image to be the one true friend she'd never had, and now neither of us would ever know the conversations we'd waited for all our lives."

Even as Bolick writes with admiration of her awakeners, she is certainly aware that her choices — to live independently, to support herself by her own means, to engage in casual sex without fear of repercussions — are ones that would have been far more difficult or even impossible in the not-too-distant past. Even as Bolick considers both her personal history and that of the unmarried women who came before her—she advocates for looking ahead to a time when we might begin to reclaim the word "spinster" from its negative connotations and for offering it instead as "shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you're single or coupled." Bolick, in her early forties as the book comes to a close, doesn't know what the future holds for her personally, but she has come a long way toward understanding what it might take for women to begin to write their own stories on their own terms.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in April 2015, and has been updated for the April 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Edna St. Vincent Millay

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