The title aroused my curiosity. As I passed the F-landmark already some years ago without experiencing a major catastrophe, I wanted to learn what I had missed. I wasn't sure what exactly to expect, though. The cover shows the back of a woman dressed in a violet slip with a lace border pulling one strap off her shoulder. This makes me think of chick lit, but a 50-year-old chick? More an old hen at that age methinks, ripe for the soup pot. A novel on midlife-crisis then? Even though it's a fact that people become older and older nowadays, death at 100 is not the norm and fifty quite some time after the middle. From other novels on midlife crises I've read I know, however, that the term is generally used for the crises some people have when they're fully grown-up, have reached a certain stage in their job, have become accustomed to their partner and life in general and suddenly ask themselves, "IS . . . THIS . . . IT?" (Chapter One, first page) The age is not so important, some are hit by this thought sooner, others later. Maybe we've got a combination of the genres here.
The name of the female protagonist is Hope Lyndhurst-Steele, she lives in London and is the editor-in-chief of a glossy women's mag. It's not Jane Bloggs from Nether-Piddleton-on-the-Marshes with a part-time job at the dry cleaner's. She'll never make it into a book, either because she hasn't got any probs or she has exactly the same ones as the top-job Hopes from London, but she and her living conditions lack the gloss factor and readers want it, don't they? Hope is surrounded by beautiful people, earns a lot of money, has a husband of twenty years with whom things aren't as racy any more as they used to be. So far, so chick-litty. Even the gay friends are there. I have the impression that there are more gay people in certain literary genres than in real life, just as there are more mass murderers in thrillers than there are in real life. The overly explicit descriptions of sexual activities also fit.
Hope tries to ignore the F-landmark but her family, friends and colleagues don't let her, everybody feels that they have to remark on it. Even if the tenor is that one hardly notices her age, that it really doesn't matter at all, that her wrinkles suit her, it gets on her nerves. Her birthday is on New Year's Day and not even the big bash on New Year's Eve her husband organises for her can mollify her. Why the fuss, everything will go on as ever, won't it? On her first work day of the new year her boss informs her that the trend she's given the mag, namely to offer help for working mothers who're interested in childcare as well as sex, is so last year. "Stains are the new sex." Hope learns to her surprise that the modern women is more interested in running her house well and especially in removing stains. Her mag will be closed, a new one will be created, but not with her. She's fired.
We accompany Hope through the following year. In May she decides to go to Paris for some days, alone, in order to get out of her emotional hole. She meets an attractive American and things go their expected way. She feels rejuvenated and is sure that the relationship with her husband can benefit from this encounter. But when she comes back, he tells her that he's leaving. He's a sympathetic man, but can't stand being with her any more. As if this weren't enough her son is about to embark on a gap year. And her mother is dying of cancer. The lost job, the familial problems and a severe disease she acquires later are definitely enough to warrant the term midlife crisis. How Hope copes constitutes the body of the novel.
There are authors who hardly ever comment on their work, like, for example, JD Salinger who became famous with the novel Catcher in the Rye. He died in 2010, the last interview he gave was in 1980. Then there are authors like Linda Kelsey who give extensive interviews and explain in detail why they've written what they've written. In principle it's not relevant what an author has to say once a book has been released to the world, but in this case I find it useful to read the author's words because they help me clarify my thoughts and find a judgement.
Linda Kelsey is a former editor of COSMOPOLITAN and SHE and has obviously lived in the swinging circles of the capital for so long that she doesn't see any more that these circles are only small sections of society and not society in general. Instead of talking about becoming fifty, she discusses 'the F-word'. She notices 'epidemic age denial', has seen loads of society ladies who've been under the scalpels of plastic surgeons and now all look more or less identical. She confesses, "I chickened out of the facelift after a dressing-down from my husband. He peered at me close up, as though examining the car for signs of wear and tear. "Mmm," he said, thoughtfully, prodding an under-eye bag. "I reckon you've got a good two more years before we need to think about swapping you for a new model." Good man!
I live in a small unglamorous town, I had the unglamorous job of a teacher, I always worked with young and old colleagues most of whom are unglamorous, I don't know anyone who's had a face-lift or any other kind of aesthetic surgery and when I invite my women friends once a year for my birthday, we never talk about our dwindling beauty. I live in Germany and am referring to Germans here, but I'm convinced that things aren't different in Great Britain. The majority of women may not be happy about advancing age and its accompanying problems - mostly in the health sector - but they don't make a great hullabaloo about it. If you're healthy, self-confident and have some people you like around you, why should you despair? Kelsey mentions people who don't get out their 60-plus concession cards because it would be an admission of something akin to defeat. "Ha!" says I. I talked myself into cheaper admission before I had even reached that age! The usually very young ticket people can't see a difference of some years anyway, for them everyone over forty is seemingly dead, so why not exploit this?
I don't really know who this book is aimed at. Maybe the readers of chick lit, young women now, are to be prepared what to expect some decades on? But the scenario Kelsey paints here is as exaggerated as the typical chick-lit ones and has to be taken with the same grain of salt. Young ones! Believe it or not, not every woman suffers from hot flashes during menopause or has bags under her eyes or several chins when she's reached middle age. The majority of women just gets older and doesn't mind too much. Should a woman be afflicted by the above mentioned things, however, it's not the end of the world, total emotional collapse is not necessary. A bit of pampering and a weekly session at the gym may work miracles.
I'm wavering how many stars to give this book, three and a half would be enough in my opinion, but I've decided to be generous and give four. The reason is that I'm thinking of older women who do mind getting older. For them the book has some profound insights which more or less result in the advice to be honest with oneself and others, not selfish and more self-confident. If self-confidence could be made into a medicine, physicians should prescribe it to the needy!
Linda Kelsey has fought for the insight and now that she's found it, she has to trumpet it out: "Fifty, I'm on a mission to inform the world, is not the new Thirty. ... Fifty is not even the new Forty. What I've discovered, after a long and sometimes tortuous journey, is that Fifty is the new Fifty...".
Yeah, indeedy, and Amen to that.