I was looking forward to reading this after enjoying Kate Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic piece, All the Single Ladies. However, in the intervening years, I’ve graduated from bubble-gummish pop-feminism to drinking deeply of the draughts of feminist theory, and her resulting book floats somewhere in the middling range of feminism-lite. This is fine — it ultimately may be the gateway drug for others to get hooked and search further — but was a bit of a let down for my anticipation. She’s more than made up for it by turning me onto Masha Tupisyn by way of Heather O’Neill.
Following Bolick’s progress through social media, I was curious how she’d end up structuring the book. It is a tale of discovery woven around her own life, held up by the five women she calls her coven: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Oddly enough, Maeve was friends with Tillie Olsen toward the end of her life, but isn’t mentioned by Tillie in Silences. There’s a great passage Bolick quotes that Maeve wrote to Tillie:
I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad to not be downcast. But I can think only of a reminder — you are all it has. You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you. But I am speaking of a soul that is timid but that longs to be known. When you are so sad that you “cannot work” there is always danger fear will enter in and begin withering around. A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.
Bolick ends the book traipsing off to Ragged Island to pay homage to Edna STV Millay, who bought the island in 1933, swimming and wandering the island nude. Bolick brings her oldest friend and her newest boyfriend, and leaves us with a quote from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I think my distaste for the work stems largely from the overwhelming presence of the author within. Yet this isn’t a satisfactory explanation, since her autobiographical bits were what drove the story along, the thread to lure interest. Maybe a solution would have been to be more “we” instead of “me” — although she strove mightily to achieve a “we” with her coven. Maybe my problem is with the idea that there needs to be this exploration at all– why is it so novel to be a spinster still?
Updated to include links to the wonderful evisceration of this book by Briallen Hopper in the LA Review of Books, which includes the line, “I would have enjoyed Spinster a lot more if it had been titled Red-Headed Writers or Dating and Divorce.”