When you hear the word “spinster,” what first comes to mind? A bitter, stuffy old woman who hates the world? A sad, lonely hag with ten cats and no friends? Or a desperate and clingy crone holding on to memories of a love long past? You wouldn’t be the only one to come up with these outrageous ideas of what it means to be a spinster. But thankfully, Kate Bolick puts a new spin on what it means to be single for life.
In Ms. Bolick’s first novel Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, readers are taken through her own discovery of what it would mean to remain unmarried and childless in New York, as well as given a history lesson of women’s roles during times when they had few options to live independently. Ms. Bolick tied her discovery to her “awakeners,” five women writers whose own lives were representative of an independent life: Edith Wharton, Maeve Brennan, Edna Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Neith Boyce. All were extraordinary women who lived life on their terms, whether they decided to marry or stay single and during times that were very different from our own. Women were given very limited options or rights and marriage was usually the only way for them to survive. But these women did not, and would not, live by those rules and wrote well and very, very often. Edith Wharton, being the most famous of the group (at least to me), went so far as to turn her home into a sanctuary for herself, thus creating a space that not only unleashed her creativity, but provided her with the opportunity to happily live alone until the end of her days.
But the true heroine in this story is Ms. Bolick herself. Her book could have been a rant on men, being single and the problems that come with them a la Sex and the City (although that book led to the creation of a show I adore to this day). Instead, she gave readers a detailed, guided tour of her desires and fears about being single in New York. The author called on each awakener at different times in her life, each representative of the trials, tribulations and successes that come with being independently single. For example, when dealing with the overwhelming urge to leave a healthy relationship, Ms. Bolick looked to awakener Maeve Brennan for what seemed like spiritual guidance. Ms. Brennan was a single, stylish and successful career woman in New York, which appealed to the confused author. What would it be like to do the same? It wasn’t until years later that Ms. Bolick learned that her guide’s later life wasn’t as rosy as she had imagined.
One of the great things about Spinster is its intelligence. Ms. Bolick does not write in a conversational tone, but it works here. Her writing is thoughtful, funny at times and it asks the questions that many women pose when deciding their future. One of the biggest fears they have is whether deciding to stay single is financially smart. It’s been said that couples who live together or marry usually generate more income. If one is ill or loses a job, the other can usually pull up the slack to keep them above water. But when you’re single, unless you have a generous savings account (or an understanding family), you’re on your own. The term “bag lady” is one that keeps many single women up at night because they are the sole bread winners. As time goes by, they worry about what will happen to them in their old age. Many decide it isn’t worth the hassle and marry for security, others to combat loneliness. But for those who get past the fear (or don’t bother to fear at all), spinsterhood is a liberating and satisfying way of life and opens up new and exciting possibilities. Ms. Bolick does a marvelous job of navigating her exploration through these and other issues with her honest writing. She doesn’t sugarcoat her feelings, fears or triumphs, which makes Spinster a relatable and smart read. I highly recommend it.