An author shows how not to behave at 40.
For some reason, I had the impression that Pamela Druckerman’s new book, “There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story,” would be more like “Bringing Up Bébé,” her charming and funny book that mixed in plenty of good advice about what French parents are doing right, and American parents are doing wrong, in childrearing. That book was ambitious — Get a baby on a four-times-a-day feeding schedule? No bananas before dinner? — but overall, the self-effacing tone made it highly readable and thought-provoking.
So I might have had the wrong approach to “There Are No Grown-Ups.” It turns out that an alternative title could have been “How a Threesome With my Husband Unlocked My Voice.” Druckerman tells us that her husband asked for a threesome as a 40th birthday present. She seems to have hesitated but floated the idea of an essay based on the experience past a magazine editor, who immediately accepted, and she felt obliged to go through with the event. As one does.
As a writer, I totally get the whole freelancer-with-a-great-story theme. But no.
When I told my own husband about this birthday request — the wife, plus another woman, of course — he looked wary, like maybe this was another of those wifely traps, like the one where I ask him whether I look good in an outfit. “They’re living in France,” Bob offered.
When her husband, Simon, made his request, Druckerman did not take to her bed, crying, for days. Or call her mother for moral support. Or slam doors. Which is the way I might react to an unfavorable opinion on a blue sweater, let alone a threesome.
By the way, there’s no need to go and look up the 2010 essay online. It’s right there, pretty much word for word, in Chapter 7. The fallout from the whole thing got quite a bit of press when “Bébé” came out in 2012, although much of that was connected to the question of whether Druckerman could pose as a parenting expert while writing about her outside-the-norm sexual experiences. I suppose parental judgment might be part of the issue, but isn’t the larger topic how the threesome might have affected her marriage?
And then there’s the question of whether this was any fun at all for Druckerman. She talks about a lot of “ambiguous moaning.” The rendevous ended with her scratching the backs of both her husband and the other woman while they got it on. Again, just, no. And to raise the inevitable question: Since the woman involved contacted her afterward to say she’d be ready to do it again, and her husband was amenable every time another female friend mentioned she’d also love to try a threesome, what’s to stop the husband and another woman from getting together without the wife? Especially since it seems as though the husband and the other woman were generally happy to end as a twosome with an observer.
I’m not going to lie: I spent the rest of the book looking for evidence that the marriage still exists.
The same insouciance that allows Druckerman’s blithe retelling of her threesome also gets her through an account of her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which leaves her bald from chemotherapy. She’s less introspective than full of quips about people’s reactions to her look, and it does leave the overall impression that she chooses to scratch the surface for a good chuckle rather than go deeper into her fears or suffering. In an odd note, the woman from her threesome offers to babysit while she’s undergoing treatment. Wisely, she turns her down.
Granted, Druckerman is an entertaining writer who can make cancer laugh-out-loud funny. She describes going on TV shows to tout her book, wearing both a wig and the beret she normally used to cover her bald head, even though it makes her look “like a Satmar Hasidic wife.”
I wish every chapter were this funny and personal. There are too many boring chapters, fillers with subjects like wisdom, the history of the midlife crisis and why finding your fashion style is a good thing. For instance, Druckerman arrives at this brilliant conclusion: “Just as dressing well in your forties entails making choices that reflect who you are, and not just wearing generic basics, looking good as you get older requires accentuating and enjoying what’s specific to you rather than striving for cookie-cutter perfection.” Profound.
A few paragraphs later, Druckerman tells us that she meets a woman who looks uncannily like her. She writes, “For the first time, I can see why someone could want me simply because I am, specifically, me.”
She adds, “Oh my God, I understand why someone would want to sleep with me!”
This might be the real theme of the book: how she tries to make herself likeable, in a needy kind of way. But Druckerman mainly comes off as tone deaf. After she decides that she has nothing in common with the women in her daughter’s playgroup, it appears they quietly kick her out. So if this is a midlife coming-of-age story, I’d say it’s still coming.
And the marriage? There is very little information offered, except a tantalizing section toward the end, where she talks about long relationships.
She admits that she tries to figure out her husband, a columnist, by reading some things he’s written. “Since he’s a writer, I go online and read some of his columns. It turns out that some basic information about my husband’s psyche is on the internet,” she writes.
Wait a minute. Druckerman is so oblivious to her husband’s work life that she hasn’t yet read his columns? What kind of detached lives do the two lead? Or is it that she is so self-absorbed that she has spent the better part of her 40-something years obsessing over herself and her insecurities? Granted, a writer this obtuse to other people could not have written so many laugh-out-loud funny lines about her foibles, right? But then I think back to her description of her own 40th birthday celebration, a cringe-worthy failure of an event to which she invited people she aspired to befriend, rather than real friends, and almost no one showed. I’m a little sad for her. Most self-conscious people are so busy shaping their public image, an image they constantly tinker with, that they are blinded to the people around them. This, to me, is the best sign of a full-fledged adult. Forget yourself. Look around and see how many fascinating lives are not your own. Druckerman has written a midlife crisis tale by making it pretty clear what not to do.
Debra Bruno is the author, with Bob Davis, of “Beijing from A to Z: An Expat Couple’s Adventures in China.”
Pamela Druckerman, pictured in 2012, writes in her new book about fashion, cancer and her husband’s unusual birthday request.
THERE ARE NO GROWN-UPS A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story