Ten Year Nap
I read recently that it’s only here in the US that people ask “what do you do?” as an opening conversational gambit. Instead, at gatherings in Rome or Paris, for instance, people are more likely to engage you in conversation about the latest political controversy or art exhibition than to inquire about your work. The end of an evening might arrive without any new acquaintances having the slightest idea of what one “does,” but a lot about what she thinks. How refreshing.
Jill, once an academic star and film producer, has just moved to the suburbs with her husband and daughter. Her biggest challenge, aside from adjusting to and finding friends in her new neighborhood, is accepting that her adopted daughter is not as intellectually adept as other kids her age and genuinely loving her nonetheless.
Karen, a mathematical whiz who worked as a statistical analyst after MIT, adores numbers, her fabulously successful banker husband, and their twin sons. The most financially comfortable of the four and the one who seems happiest with her life as wife and mother, she regularly gets dressed in a suit and heels to interview for jobs. When she’s offered one, as she almost always is, she turns it down.
Roberta, a painter whose early work was overshadowed by that of splashier, more attention-grabbing and agressively male artists, turned to puppetry to earn a living, abandoning that in favor of fashioning elaborate crafts projects with her kids. She’s recently turned to volunteering with a group for reproductive rights.
At the center of the novel is Amy, a former attorney increasingly aware of the growing distance between herself, her husband, and her son. Though the boy still needs her to get him up in the morning, suddenly his gangly legs are too long to sit in her lap; though his body used to belong to her, he now demands privacy in the bath, warning, “no looking.” But Amy longs for him, for the version of herself that had been his mother when he was small, musing, “once it had been your right to see your son’s penis. You had diapered him and been squirted in the face more than once by him, and in these moments the penis had seemed somehow to be yours too.” (Risa, are you there?) Amy’s growing dissatisfaction with her life is temporarily assuaged by her infatuation with the one woman who seems to, you’ll pardon the expression, “have it all.” Penny Ramsey, pretty, well dressed, never noticeably harried, director of a small but significant museum, “the mother at their sons’ school who slid past you in her perfection and achievement, making you look at yourself in dismay…” is also having an affair and has made Amy her confidant. “She’s got a big life,” Amy thinks, and for a while, she’s deluded into thinking that being the keeper of Penny’s secret has made Amy’s bigger, too, has “softly inflated her days.”
So here we have four women, expected to lead formidable lives, who now aren’t sure what to do with themselves. Though the novel is being energetically marketed as an entry in the refusing to be vanquished “mommy wars,” that’s not at all what it’s about. In fact, to read it this way demeans it. Despite a disturbing tendency toward stereotypes – must the math wizard be Asian American? Must Jewish Roberta have a large nose? This is a serious book about friendship and its complexities, about money, about once confident women feeling vulnerable, and, not at all incidentally, about mothers and daughters - the legacy left by women like Amy’s mother who embraced the second wave of feminism with the fury that only true converts display and who expected their daughters to do the “big things” for which their mothers had paved the way. A strong feature of the novel is its structure: vignettes of Karen’s Chinese immigrant mother punishing body and soul in a San Francisco factory so that her children would have better lives; of Jill’s fragile, would-be actress mother who commits suicide; and of Roberta’s parents’ happy marriage/working business partnership - these punctuate the the struggles of the younger women. The presence of Amy’s successfully productive novelist mother, Antonia, tugs at the threads that bind that generation of mothers to their daughters. Worried and annoyed that she’s disappointed her mother by no longer having a profession, Amy wails, “I am lost in the middle of my life. You were once lost, too, so tell me what to do.” “Well, you’ll keep figuring it out,” Antonia says. “We did, or at least we tried. We put it together and hoped that everybody got at least a little of what they needed. But back then it was the beginning of everything. We were the early ones. I know we got some things wrong, but we did try to do right by everyone. And now I guess it’s out of our hands.” Into the slippery hands of Amy and her friends.
The Ten Year Nap isn’t drenched in drama. (At times it’s very funny. Wolitzer has a sharp eye and an ear for the comic elements not just of domestic life but the efforts of smart, bored women to transcend it as well. One of most hilarious scenes takes place in Jill’s new suburban community, when she reluctantly accepts an invitation from a neighbor to work on launching a new brand of greeting cards called “WUV” cards, improbably designed for kids to send to their parents. She also astutely fills in the novel’s canvas with mothers in the background, the theoretical physicist with a penchant for fabulously fashionable shoes, for instance, and the woman who wears 80’s business suits in her role as uber-volunteer.) The novel’s pace is leisurely, with the lives of the friends and their mothers unfolding in alternating rhythm punctuated by intermittent events. But those lives are no less intense for that.
As Wolitzer herself has said, this isn’t a book about motherhood vs work. Rather, it’s about motherhood, marriage and work. In exploring the tensions and the meaning of work in the lives of women for whom it was once their primary identity, Wolitzer reminds us that not everyone has a passion for her work, not everyone’s work is so fulfilling that she feels compelled to return; not everyone is even that terrific at something. On the other hand, she knows that work has the power to give meaning to women’s lives in ways beyond children and beyond the commonplace. One of the most illuminating moments in the novel captures the pleasure a struggling single North Dakota mother takes in her part time job as cashier at the Kubla Khan Casino, a job many would scorn. Here for a time, she can forget her car payments, her sick mother, and her unhappy daughter in a “bright and restless world” in which she’s never bored. As Amy Lamb comes to appreciate, it’s not work that makes a person interesting; it’s interesting work that does that.
The Ten Year Nap doesn’t offer the grim, judgmental vision of stay at home mothers we get in Rachel Cusk’s gorgeously written but dismal Arlington Park, with its desperately unhappy suburban mothers. Rather, it’s a smartly sympathetic attempt to show what it’s like for women to wake up from a ten year nap to contemplate their futures.