I ummed and ahhed for a long time about whether I should even write this review. It’s been a long time since I reviewed a book that I really didn’t like, but in the end, I found Spinster to be such an interesting (yet unpleasant) read that I really wanted to have a go at explaining why. I’d like to make it clear, since this is a memoir, that I’m commenting on the writing and the message, rather than the author herself—a difficult line to find when reviewing someone’s thoughts about their own life.
Title: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
Author: Kate Bolick
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is part memoir, part biography of five female writers, part… interior design discussion? It is billed as being “a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single”. Had it actually fulfilled that blurb, I think I would have loved it. This is one of those books which I feel is very specifically targeted, so let me get this out of the way: I am a bookish spinster who is generally happy with her lot. I have a challenging and stimulating profession (actually, I have two), a close and fantastic group of friends (married and single, male and female), and a tiny one-bedroom flat which I have all to myself. In short, I should have been smack-dab in the middle of the demographic, but somehow, I don’t seem to be getting it.
In some ways, the concept is like that of The Road to Middlemarch. Like Mead, Bolick threads together biographical details (this time about her five “awakeners”) with her own memoir, and she is rather more adept at transitioning between the two. The five women she refers to as her “awakeners” are Edna St Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, and Edith Wharton: all female writers, all unconventional, and all single at some point in their lives, who demonstrated to Bolick at various points that she can exist outwith the “marriage plot” of Jane Austen novels. All of them were also married at some point, some of them happily, so I’m not entirely sure why Bolick chose to use them as examples. In fact, this is a theme throughout the book: Bolick and I seem to have different definitions of the word single. For almost the entirety of her memoir, she is coupled, or at least going on a plethora of dates, and the women she picks as her examples are much the same.
The very few occasions that she attempts to be single as I would consider it (i.e. alone, not seeing anyone romantically), she doesn’t seem to like it at all. It’s fair enough to want to be in a relationship. Lots of people do. But one of Bolick’s friends challenges her to “cloister herself” at one point during the book (i.e. go on no dates for a couple of months, and focus on her friendships, herself, and her work), and she manages less than two weeks. At another point, she describes drunkenly eating a Big Mac and then rolling into bed at 4am, “disgusting nobody but myself”–something of a telling phrase. If you are writing a book about the “pleasures and possibilities of remaining single”, it seems to me that you should have been single for a while, and, at least on occasion, enjoyed it.
Because of this, very little of the book actually addresses making a life of one’s own. Bolick spends so much time explaining why she was dissatisfied with her own relationships, and why she feels the women she admires should have been unhappy in their marriages, that she hardly covers the many and varied things that women (and men) who are single do with their time. For example, it might sound like a cliché, but Bolick never addresses the liberation that comes from going to a restaurant or to see a film by oneself—because she never spends any time alone; she never learns to be okay with herself. Equally, the small, powerful freedoms that come from being single are left unexplored. One of the privileges of being single, at least for me, is being able to give one’s time and money away without having to check with someone; or, for example, a couple of years ago I went camping solo, last minute, in a way that would have been more complicated had I had a relationship to consider. There is no consideration of what a life of one’s own might look like, except the references to Bolick’s work. There is so much to enjoy in singleness, but because the central thesis is that relationships are miserable, not that singleness can be wonderful, this is never explored.
My final issue with Spinster is the fact that Bolick seems to assume that any woman can walk out of her house and into a giant herd of men offering dates and/or matrimony. This probably is the case for her (that’s her on the cover), but outside the very niche world of New York journalists and media types, it’s not so much the case. The extraordinary privilege that Bolick enjoys (beauty, good health, good income, loving father) is only rarely acknowledged, and she makes statements about the number of unmarried women in the US (100 million, apparently), without considering the fact that not all of those women will be happily single, and even of those who are happily single, not all will want to be single forever. The assumption that any woman can get a date is rather dismissive of those hordes of women (come on, I can’t be the only one) who never actually get offered the prospect of a relationship. It’s still possible to be happy in singleness if the singleness is not by choice—it might have to be intentional, but it’s perfectly doable. I haven’t always loved being single, but I am choosing to make a life of my own, filling it with people and things and activities that are important to me—not as a relationship replacement, but because I am a person and I don’t need another person to complete me. This effort to make a life of my own means that I am now genuinely and consistently happy, not just content with being single but actively enjoying and appreciating it. I would have liked Bolick to at least acknowledge that not everyone is single on purpose, and not everyone’s singleness is filled with the prospect of lots of relationships.
Despite my many criticisms, I felt that the excitement Bolick describes as she furnishes her own flat in her own style was well-articulated and completely understandable. Throughout the book, Bolick refers to her “spinster wish”–the desire to have a space for herself, entirely unshared, carved out in her life–and when she gets the opportunity to deck her flat out exactly the way she wants, I cheered internally. I can definitely empathise with this aspect of the “spinster wish”. Though I don’t have the resources to have my home made over by a professional interior design company (nor a sufficiently permissive landlord), I feel just as much pleasure whenever I have the opportunity to visit IKEA and buy myself a coffee table or a new lamp. There is something about nesting and making my flat home for myself that is wonderful. Friends have asked me, incredulous, “but do you feel safe living alone? Don’t you get lonely?” Knowing that the flat is, gradually, becoming my space through furniture and paintings and nice candles helps me to feel safe there, and staves off the occasional and inevitable feelings of loneliness. Virginia Woolf first articulated this in A Room of One’s Own, and I feel immensely privileged to live in a world where it’s now both possible and even normal for a woman to live alone as a “bachelor girl”. Bolick does such a good job of describing her pleasure, and it’s the one part of the book which I really identified with.
However, in summary, it felt as though the overarching theme of this book was “being single can be okay, as long as you are fabulously wealthy, extremely beautiful, and have the opportunity to date lots of men; it’s okay to be single as long as it’s in no way your fault and you never actually have to cope with being alone“. It’s not a celebration or even an accurate exploration of singleness. I would love to read a book examining singleness in light of, or at least acknowledging, the fact that singleness is sometimes unwelcome and occasionally permanent, a book addressing how to make a life of one’s own when on a modest income, or dealing with loneliness, or not so terribly gorgeous that you “can’t walk down the street without being asked out” (a phrase she actually uses at one point); in short, a book for the average majority.