Saturday, August 8, 2015

Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

Title:  Spinster:  Making a Life of One's Own
Author:  Kate Bolick
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385347138 / 978-0385347136

Book Source: I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books!

Opening Sentence:  "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 practice."

Favorite Quote:  "It never ceases to astonish me how readily we presume to know ourselves, when in fact we know so little."

The Oxford English dictionary defines a spinster as "an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage." The dictionary prefaces the definition with an annotation - "derogatory." Being a spinster has not been considered a positive outcome, or a goal to be aspired to. (The etymology of the word comes from fourteenth century English, originally signifying the occupation of spinning thread into fabric. Spinning was often undertaken by young women. Thus, as a woman remained unmarried, she continued to spin. Gradually, the term came to signify the woman herself rather than the occupation.)

With this one word title and a cover that evokes an era gone by, the book sets itself up as a thoughtful look at women who remain unmarried - not by circumstance but by choice.

Unfortunately, this book is completely not what I expected, and not in a good way. What I expected was a cultural look at independent women "making a life of one's own." I expected a historical perspective on how views on single women have changed. I expected a modern take, hearing from current women on their life choices, both the benefits and the challenges. I expected some research or data to show cultural trends. I expected, by the end of the book, to dispel the negativity surround the word spinster and to learn of women leading fulfilled lives, comfortable and happy with their choice to remain unmarried.

What I read is a memoir of one woman and stories on women in history who inspire her. The book does not explore the community of women today who choose this path of life. Kate Bolick's inspirations, her "awakeners" as she called them, are historical - Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), Neith Boyce (1872-1951), Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Edith Wharton (1862-1937), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935).

What is really unexpected is that all five of these women were at some point in their lives married. That belies a discussion of spinsterhood although the author does by the end of the book offer her own definition of spinster - "shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you're single or coupled." Unfortunately, changing the definition of the title word at the end of the book means that the book is not truly about the topic suggested by the title. This is a memoir - a personal account not a sociological analysis at women choosing the unmarried life.

What is also unexpected is that a book about being a "spinster" devotes so much time to discussing relationships. Throughout this journey, the author appears to be in a relationship. While relationships are all different and enter into all lives, why does a book on spinsterhood spend time talking about things like the sadness of breaking up and jealousy and references the author's significant others by initial - D, R, S, and W? Why does a woman "making a life of one's own" seem to go from one relationship to the next? Even if being a spinster applies only to the institution of marriage and not other relationships, I would rather read about a rich, vibrant life of her own - career, friends, interest, travel, etc. - rather than relationships. Again, this book becomes a memoir - a personal account not a sociological look at women choosing the unmarried life.

All content aside, I have a very difficult time with the writing style of the book. The book goes between the author's life and her stories of her inspirations. For me, it meanders from idea to idea without putting the ideas into a cohesive framework. Reading through, it's unclear what the main point of the book is. A few paragraphs in the final chapter do bring together the author's call to action - what the word spinster can mean for any woman. Perhaps, that explanation at the beginning of the book would help provide the context necessary and lead the reader away from the expectation that this is a book actually about spinsterhood.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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