Monday, April 7, 2008

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead Books, 2008

When my daughter turned three and my son six, I was faced with the fact that I had to return to work. Recently separated and in financially precarious straits, I could no longer rely on my freelance writing to pay the mortgage or put food on the table. Even though I had worked off and on while raising my children, it proved exceedingly difficult to find a full time job. I was competing against younger people who were willing to take a lower salary, who had not yet defined their skill set and who were able to be easily molded. The realization that I might not be able to return to work full time was like a punch in the gut; it was maddening and frustrating – a tough pill to swallow.

In her newest work, The Ten-Year Nap, author Meg Wolitzer addresses this exact scenario. Told from the points of view of four friends, but primarily through the viewpoint of Amy, the book focuses on the crossroads a woman experiences when her children no longer need her full time but she is unable to re-enter the workforce. Amy, a Manhattanite married to a mildly successful attorney, wakes up one morning to discover that her ten-year old son is self-sufficient and that she no longer has anything to fill her days with. Jill adopts a child from Siberia, moves to the suburbs and is unable to fit in with the women of Holly Hills. Roberta, an artist, whose son attends his Manhattan private school on financial aid, feels she is at the mercy of the school PTA for fear of being a social outcast. Karen, a brilliant Chinese woman and mother of twins, lives with the constant fear of being left out even as she fails to hide her disdain for others. Add to the mix, brilliant, hard working Penny Ramsey, whose life seems perfect (but is far from it) and you have the typical, if not stereotypical, 21st Century woman. These are women who have been raised to believe that they could do it all; take care of their family, hold down a great job, be perfectly coiffed and well-read.

Wolitzer delivers a book that teeters on the edge of being the Feminist Mystique of our day. Her voice and message are important ones – do women give up a part of themselves upon becoming mothers? Can women re-enter the workforce after taking a long sabbatical? Does there always have to be a choice between motherhood and career? Where Wolitzer leaves the reader a bit flat is in the meandering plot line; the story does not truly move forward until the middle, until a true conflict occurs. Prior to that, the book is slow and almost devoid of dimension with characters that seem a bit pathetic and irritating. When Amy finds herself in the middle of Penny’s marital problems, the book takes on interest as we begin to see these characters as three dimensional. While a reader wants to see herself in the author’s words, it is still essential that a book has conflict that is not only mental but visual.

Women will find a piece of themselves in The Ten-Year Nap, whether they are the stay-at-home mother or the working mother. Wolitzer has taken a topic of such import that, even where the book falters, one can argue the worth of this novel and possibly its place on the shelf next to Betty Friedan.

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