There’s something about turning forty. What that is, exactly, is the question addressed by fifteen women and the editor, Lindsey Mead, in the thoughtful, spirited, poignant, and immensely readable anthology, On Being 40 (ish). The contributors, mostly Generation Xers, are a who’s who of writers, artists, thinkers, an even an actress (Jill Kargman of “Odd Mom Out,” who did not become an actress until she was 39). I already knew and admired the work of some of them when I picked up the book; once I read all of their biographical sketches, I realized I should have known about all of them.
Happily, the topic of being forty is not very constraining. As I approached the end of each chapter, I couldn’t wait to get to the next to see what that person would do with it. Not even the format was predictable. One contributor, Jena Schwartz, wrote a poem, and another, Sujean Rim, told her story in a series of illustrations.
Interspersed among the chapters were some great sentence-completion items, to which the contributors offered brief responses: “The biggest surprise of life after forty is…”, “The single most important lesson I’ve learned in my life so far is…”, “The thing I’ve given myself permission to do now that I am forty is…”, and “The quote or mantra that most speaks to me about this moment in my life is…”.
In the hands of a lesser editor, an anthology on being 40-ish could have been a cliché, with every woman a married mother, grumbling about “work-life balance” and getting squeezed between caring for kids and looking after aging parents. Those themes were addressed, as they should be, but so were other kinds of themes and other kinds of lives.
Meghan Daum, who was once married, wrote an ode to living alone that I suspect I will come back to again and again. Kate Bolick told the story I was eager to hear about the life-changing experience of writing a wildly popular cover story for The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” followed by her bestselling book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. Julie Klam’s “The People Who Got Me Here” was a touching tribute to her mother and aunt. “I guess one of the things about getting older,” she said, “is we develop an appreciation for the team who got us here, whatever your support system is: friends, teachers, therapists, or family.”
Lindsey Mead’s introduction could have been a screenplay for a movie. Six forty-something women, friends since college, get together in a fabulous place on a tiny, infamous island (Chappaquiddick) for their seventh annual weekend reunion. They do what they’ve been doing for about two decades: talk about everything. “Forty feels like we’ve come to the top of the Ferris wheel,” Mead says; “the view is dazzling, in no small part because we know how quickly the descent will go.”
“It’s a Game of Two Halves” is the title of Veronica Chambers’ essay and her summary of “the act and art of being in my forties.” She adds, “And here’s the thing: no matter what happens, you can’t win in the first half.”
“Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing,” by Catherine Newman, starts off as a sweet tale of a special friendship, unveiled by recounting the clothes she and her soul mate wore at age four, and then at subsequent ages. It is all light and airy until a casual entry for the year 2011 forewarns that this breezy essay is not going to have a happy ending. But it was a beautiful ending, too.
Two other “before and after” kinds of essays were riveting. Allison Winn Scotch was the woman who could juggle everything and handle anything until a devastating injury left her unable to walk for months. Her closing paragraph is perfect; I love when that happens. For Lee Woodruff, “I am beyond happy” is how she described the “before” part of her life. Then her husband, reporter Bob Woodruff, was felled by a roadside bomb in Iraq and nearly died. “Woe is me” is not the moral of either story.
A passionate and inspiring essay on teaching was contributed by Jessica Lahey. I teach a course on teaching, and I may need to expand my syllabus next time to include it. Taffy Brodesser-Akner offers a meditation on how time is experienced at ages 18, 27, 35, 40, and one day after turning forty. Sloane Crosley tells us “What We Talk about When We Talk about Our Face.” Sophfronia Scott describes something I hope I will understand someday: feeling chill about President Trump.
KJ Dell’Antonia is 47, has a husband and four kids, and lives in New Hampshire. I’m 65, I’ve been single all my life, I have no kids, and I live in California. I would not have predicted that her essay, “Why I Didn’t Answer Your Email,” would be one of my favorites.
On Being 4o (ish) is a quick read and I ended up wanting more. I would love to see parallel anthologies for each round number, starting at 20-ish and continuing up through 70 or 80 or, these days, who knows. I’d like to hear men’s voices, too.
On Being 40 (ish)
Simon & Schuster, February 2019
Paperback, 229 pages