Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Danticat, Bolick, Zhang, Machado, Smiley, Crain, Rowell, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Edwidge Danticat, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, Jane Smiley, Caleb Crain, and Rainbow Rowell—that are publishing this week.

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Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Everything Inside: “Families fracture and reform in Danticat’s outstanding and deeply memorable story collection. Set among the Haitian ‘dyaspora’ including Miami, New York, and Haiti itself, the tales describe the complicated lives of people who live in one place but are drawn elsewhere. The American children of immigrants discover that their lives have been shaped by their parents’ Haitian pasts, as in the touching, funny ‘In the Old Days,’ when a New York high school teacher learns that her absent father, who divorced her mother and returned to Haiti, is dying, and rushes to meet him. In the book’s standout story, ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’ a woman with dementia struggles to impart the lessons of motherhood to her own daughter: ‘You are always saying hello to them while preparing them to say goodbye to you.’ And the charming ‘Hot Air Balloons’ follows two college freshmen—Neah, the child of academics, and Lucy, the daughter of migrant farm workers—as each comes to her own understanding of Haiti, a place of ‘idyllic beaches’ and ‘dewy mountaintops,’ as well as corruption and poverty, where girls are ‘recruited for orgies with international aid workers.’ In plain, propulsive prose, and with great compassion, Danticat writes both of her characters’ losses and of their determination to continue: ‘There are loves that outlive lovers.'”

March Sisters by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about March Sisters: “In this thoughtful essay collection, four contemporary authors explore their relationships to the title characters of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Each focuses on the sister who holds particular significance for them, considering how their attitude toward the character has changed as they’ve grown from ‘little women’ themselves into adults. Bolick (Spinster) recalls initially finding Meg March ‘yawningly familiar, the quintessential good girl of morality tales’ until she found herself, like Meg, feeling utterly out of her element at a party. Similarly, Zhang (Sour Hearts) felt irritated by Jo March’s ‘boyishness’ and ‘impetuousness,’ but then, as she matured, unearthed deeper layers in the character. Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) finds common ground with the doomed Beth March through her own history of childhood illness, while Smiley (Golden Age) stirringly defends the oft-maligned Amy as the epitome of a ‘modern woman’ and ‘thoughtful feminist.’ In addition to sharing literary insights and personal histories, the authors also discuss the extent to which the Marches resembled and diverged from their real-life models: Alcott’s own sisters. Any readers who have ever compared themselves to Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy—or to all four—will enjoy seeing Alcott’s much-loved classic through these alternate perspectives.”

Bottle Grove by Daniel Handler

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bottle Grove: “Handler’s latest novel for adults (following All the Dirty Parts) is a hilarious tale about unlikely couples set during the San Francisco dot-com explosion. Martin is a 30-year-old co-owner of Bottle Grove bar when he meets Padgett, a woman with a trust fund, sharp wit, and a drinking problem, while they’re both working a wedding for Rachel and Ben, and soon become a couple. The wedding ends with a bang when the significant other of Reynard, who is pretending to be a vicar, confronts Reynard about his infidelity and Reynard crashes his car trying to escape her. After the wedding, Martin and his business partner need cash to keep their bar open, and Martin hatches a plan that involves Padgett meeting tech tycoon Vic and enchanting him to get money out of him. Padgett, not in on the scheme, realizes what Martin’s doing after becoming involved with Vic, a complicated and famous man with plenty of secrets. Meanwhile, Rachel and Ben are still married, but she’s feeling restless and unsettled while Reynard lurks around her, biding his time to seduce her. Handler cleverly exposes the sinister sides of his protagonists as they clamor for what they think they deserve. Readers expecting Handler’s trademark humor and bite won’t be disappointed.”

What Red Was by Rosie Price

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Red Was: “Two young adult friends uneasily navigate the aftermath of sexual assault in Price’s searing debut. Kate Quaile meets Max Rippon during their first year of university in Gloucestershire, and the two bond over a shared love of film and quiet nights in. Kate’s upbringing in council housing with her divorced mother, Alison, a recovering alcoholic, clashes with the wealth of Max’s family, especially the old money of his grandmother’s lavish country estate. Despite differences, Kate is welcomed by his family, including his mother, Zara, an acclaimed feminist film director, even if they do not fully understand Kate and Max’s platonic friendship. During a summer party at the Rippons’ London home, Max’s churlish cousin Lewis rapes Kate. She hesitantly discloses her assault, first to Zara and then to Max, without naming her attacker. Zara insists on paying for therapy and providing her with contacts in the film industry for work while Max provides emotional support. As Kate begins her lurching recovery, Max deals with his grandmother’s death and the family complications fed by their strong repression of uncomfortable emotions. Price has a sure hand in her depiction of the disruption that the trauma causes to Kate’s life. This powerful novel handles its explosive plot with an admirable delicacy and offers an emotional portrait of friendship.”

Overthrow by Caleb Crain

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Overthrow: “Crain’s ambitious if flawed novel (after Necessary Errors) portrays young utopians caught on the wrong side of a government security project. Amid the idealism and hubbub of New York City during the Occupy movement, Matthew, a lonely graduate student in his early 30s, meets the younger, beautiful Leif, a skater and poet who might just be telepathic. As Matthew and Leif’s relationship blossoms into romance, Matthew falls in with Leif’s group of friends and Occupy protesters: Elspeth, a fact-checker with her own empathic streak; Raleigh, a self-centered computer whiz; and Julia, a rich young woman delighted by the excitement of their movement. The group’s murky aims involve using their empathic and telepathic gifts to restructure society by trusting in feelings. As the group begins to realize what they want, they hack into a government contractor’s files and are arrested which tests the strength of their loyalties to one another. Crain crafts elegant, effortless sentences, but the shifting perspectives and alliances of the novel feel less compelling than Matthew’s initial, skeptical point of view. Just as these characters’ optimism cannot be sustained amid the realities of capitalism and control, neither can the novel’s momentum be sustained after their arrests, culminating in a legal battle. This novel’s promising premise is ultimately overshadowed by its shortcomings.”

Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pumpkin Heads: “For the last several years, high schoolers Deja and Josiah (Josie) have been best friends during autumn, working together at the Pumpkin Patch’s Succotash Hut. On Halloween, the last day of their final year working at the Patch, outgoing Deja, a plus-size black girl who has dated many of the Patch’s staffers—girls and boys alike—intends to make sure that responsible, quiet Josie, who is white, finally talks to his long-standing crush, a young woman who works at the Fudge Shoppe. A packed night at the Patch leads to the duo pursuing ‘Fudge Girl’ through the grounds, reliving memories, averting catastrophes, eating all their favorite snacks, and savoring one last autumnal night together. Art by Hicks (Comics Will Break Your Heart) turns the sweetly witty dialogue by Rowell (Carry On) into a miniature autumn universe; precise, affectionate details (signage, costumes, endpaper maps) will coax readers to revel in the cozy atmosphere. The pacing is assured, driving along in short bursts that leave room for key scenes to stretch, but it’s the primary characters’ authentic friendship—built over several seasons working alongside one another—and the variously inclusive cast that really bring this funny last-day story home.”

No Miss Havishams Here: On Emma Rathbone’s ‘Losing It’

1. 
Hookup culture is destroying relationships and intimacy, Nancy Jo Sales declared in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. She quoted everyone from banking bros who bragged about their numbers of Tinder conquests, to social scientists who believe hookup culture is as revolutionary as the introduction of marriage 10,000 years ago. But what if you aren’t hooking up? Where do you fit in?

Emma Rathbone asks these questions in her second novel, Losing It. Her protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a directionless 26-year-old fixated on the fact that she’s still a virgin. Not for lack of interest, but misplaced optimism — she declines a high school boyfriend’s request to have sex in a pool, assuming she could “afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Except the next proposition never comes, and as the years pass Julia’s fear of having to tell men she’s a virgin consumes her and ruins any chance she has of sex. When her parents suggest she spend the summer with her maiden aunt Vivienne in Durham, North Carolina, Julia decides this will be her opportunity to lose “it.” A new girl in town during a hot North Carolina summer seems like the perfect scenario, but awkward Julia self-sabotages: taking a boring office job where everyone is old and married; going on online dates with misogynists; and learning that Vivienne is a 58-year-old virgin, Julia’s own worst nightmare. As she writes, “That was the problem — to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?”

We’re supposed to be rooting for Julia, but just as Julia concludes that there is something “too much” about Vivienne’s personality that prevented her from pairing up, there is something likewise lacking in Julia’s that keeps her single. She picks bad lovers, says the wrong thing, and completely misjudges any romantic moment to tragicomic effect. It’s a testament to Rathbone’s writing that we still find Julia sympathetic even as it becomes clearer that Julia’s own poor decision-making is part of the issue. She is an anti-hero of her own story, solely because of a fluke of sexual chemistry and opportunity. As a middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white woman, Julia should’ve had dozens of opportunities to have sex, but she is a statistical anomaly, who doesn’t quite fit in with the hook-up generation of her peers, or with the self-declared spinster Gen-Xers before her.

2.
If there is a poster girl for sex-positive millennials, it’s Lena Dunham. In the 2012 pilot of her HBO show Girls, we see Dunham’s character engaged in bad couch sex with her not-quite boyfriend. This was her sexually liberated battle cry, that millennial women were hooking up and not ashamed of it. Dunham’s own writings have followed suit, with much of her essay collection, Not that Kind of Girl, devoted to her own sexual experiences in college and beyond. In “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” Dunham writes about being “the oldest virgin in town” (with “town” being Oberlin college) as a college sophomore; already, virginity is a burden that must jettisoned to fit in with the anything-goes sexuality of her liberal arts school and her later career.

This freewheeling upper-middle-class millennial archetype appears frequently in fiction, too. Adelle Waldman explores the male perspective in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (a book Dunham also praised), in which the titular protagonist sleeps with his intellectual circle as a distraction from the book he’s writing. Sex is presented as an afterthought, though clearly it seeps into all aspects of life, even as everyone pretends not to care. The challenge of so-called laissez-faire sex is the main theme running through Katherine Heiny’s short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. The characters are anything but what the title suggests, spending most of the stories conflicted about their supposedly casual affairs. In these books, it’s never a question of will they or won’t they, but whether it will mean anything after they do. The very impetus of the story is sex, hence there are no stories for the sex-less, intentional or not.

The generation ahead of the millennials has reclaimed singledom as a social movement. Kate Bolick’s memoir/history book Spinster is about redefining the formerly pejorative word. To Bolick and the women she profiles — among them Edith Wharton and Neith Boyce — spinsterhood isn’t about virginity or chastity, but rather about proudly living as an unmarried, and thus unemcumbered, woman. She concludes that “spinster” is a dated concept: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Rebecca Traister develops the thesis further in All the Single Ladies, her nonfiction examination of just what it means socially and politically when women have more choices than just marriage. The first single women spawned revolutionary movements from abolition to suffrage, and with only 20 percent of Americans married by age 29 today, single women could continue to change the dominant culture. “Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” she writes. Being single is a call to action in these books, but it’s also a choice.

Of course, this new singledom can come with unexpected hitches. “In a culture that has more fully acknowledged female sexuality as a reality, it is perhaps more difficult than ever to be an adult woman who does not have sex,” Traister writes. She continues to tell the story of sexually willing women who couldn’t find the opportunity to have sex, including herself (Traister didn’t lose her virginity until age 24), describing it with increasingly negative vocabulary: freighted, loom, frigid, cumbersome. Virginity is pathologized after a certain age.

3.
While millennials and Gen-Xers ultimately have different views on singledom and sex, both are fighting against a previous narrative that dictated social mores (particularly for women). But someone like Rathbone’s Julia Greenfield was never part of the narrative to begin with. This doesn’t leave her much room in literature or even culture. Indeed, literary virgins with any agency are few and far between.

The most infamous example is Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. After being left at the altar, she retreats to a mansion, where she never takes off her wedding dress and is described as a witch. She is a pitiful wreck whose forced virginity pushes her to mental breakdown and full removal from society. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’s titular virgins in The Virgin Suicides are more figurative than literal virgins. They are trapped by both their strict parents and the narrative the neighborhood teenage boys impose on them, effectively fetishizing their virginity. All of these women’s fates are decided and described by men, both by the domineering men who keep them virgins and the male authors who write about them. They are modern-day cautionary tales.

This is what makes Losing It subversive. We understand Julia’s hesitation, which is almost radical in this world of swipe-happy 20-somethings. But even though her characters may be ashamed of their virginity, Rathbone isn’t ashamed on their behalf, and so gives voice to a silent subgroup. This isn’t just Julia’s story; it’s also Vivienne’s, and Rathbone decides not to give us a definitive reason for why Vivienne is still a virgin. There are no Miss Havishams here. Sometimes nothing is wrong; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. (And sometimes, in Julia’s case, it does.)

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