Saturday, June 9, 2012

Book Report: 29 by Adena Halpern

In Adena Halpern's novel 29, seventy-five-year-old heroine Ellie Jerome is sick of being old.  She's sick of her liver spots and aches and pains and being patronized by hipsters in the boutiques and salons of her native Philadelphia.  So, when presented with the proverbial birthday cake candles, she closes her eyes and wishes that she could be twenty-nine again for just one day.  When she wakes up the next morning she finds that her wish has come true (the tipoff, as she tells us, was not needing to rearrange her boobs into a more comfortable position.)

To me, the backstory that drove Ellie to make such a wish was more interesting than what happened once she got what she wanted (or what, as we later find out, she thought she wanted).  At eighteen, Ellie wanted to go to the University of Pennsylvania to major in English. But it was the 1950s, and her mother protested, insisting that she go to secretarial school, secure a position in a law office, and marry a lawyer instead.  Which was exactly what Ellie did.  Her husband Howard was balding and portly and ten years her senior.  He "ran around on her" but bought her everything she wanted, got her a maid, and flew her all around the world.  They had one child, a somewhat difficult daughter who looked like Howard.  Ellie devoted her life to her family, shopping, and charity work.  She never did get around to reading the classics because, as she said, she never had the time.  Now, at seventy-five, she says she regrets marrying Howard because her motivation was security instead of love.

I'm going to play devil's advocate here and interject that Ellie had nothing but time with no job and a maid and only one kid.  I also wonder why she'd want to read moldy old classics instead of something more interesting, or heck, even write something herself.  But Ellie never really goes into any of that.  A question in the reader's guide at the back of the book (I love a good reader's guide don't you?) seemed to hint as to why: "Ellie writes off many of her regrets by saying that was just what you did in her day.  Is this an accurate portrayal of her generation, or is she dodging responsibility for her actions?"  I think that maybe Ellie wanted to be a lady of leisure instead of a scholar.  If she hadn't, then she would have fought her mother harder.  Or, even after she got married, she would have pursued writing in some other way, even if it was just by keeping a journal.  Something else I read in the reader's guide confirmed these suspicions.  When asked what inspired her to write 29, Author Adena Halpern said: "I am fascinated by Ellie's generation of women.  . . . To me, these women led glamorous lives.  Most of them didn't work, they drove fancy cars, and they got their hair done - a lot.  This was who I wanted to be when I grew up."  Halpern follows up with this qualifier, which explains some of Ellie's inner turmoil:  "It took growing up, however, to realize that what seemed so idyllic on the outside was not always so rosy.  Sure, some of them (the women) enjoyed their lives, but as I found out, many of them have unfulfilled dreams that leave them with regrets.  These are the women who missed out by one generation on all the fruits of the women's lib movement."  To explore what might have been, Ellie spends her day of youth gallivanting around the city with her twenty-five-year-old fashion designer granddaughter, Lucy.  She marvels at the effect of her perfect pre-thirty body on the men she meets, even managing to snag a date (and a shag!) with an Internet mogul.  She's so dazzled that she considers wishing to be twenty-nine forever so she can start a life with him.  But then she realizes two things: 1) For all his faults, Howard was her soulmate, and 2) her daughter and granddaughter need her.

I had some trouble deciphering the message of this story, or determining, indeed, if it had a message at all.  Does Ellie's epiphany mean that she was right to listen to her mother and marry for money after all?  Or that she was wrong but that she grew to love Howard, somehow shoehorning him into being her soulmate?  And why didn't she somehow try to fit her writing dream into her do-over?  In the end, all I came up with was that Halpern is trying to tell readers to "be grateful for your life because it's yours and has value, no matter what kind of mess you think you made of it."  Kind of like in It's a Wonderful Life.  You know, if George Bailey had been a wistful trophy wife instead of a penniless do-gooder who married his true love.  Hmmm.  That sounded pretty judgy of me.  But now that I've reached the end of this post, I realize that I'm not so much judging Ellie for being a lady who lunches, but for not owning that that's who she is.  Of course, if this book had opened with her saying something like, "When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a writer, but it turned out that I didn't.  I wanted to be a kept woman, so I snagged a lawyer and spent my life buying dresses and loved every minute of it.  My husband cheated on me, but he always treated me well and was a good provider, so it really wasn't that big of a deal.  Now that I'm old, I miss being young and beautiful, so I'm going to wish to be twenty-nine when I blow out these candles," then there would have been no story left to tell.

Ah, conflict.  The glue that holds fiction together.    

1 comment:

Valerie said...

I'll have to read this one too. I am also curious as to why Ellie didn't try to pursue-even in a small way-the dreams she felt she had to give up when she got married. What did she really want for her life, I wonder? It does sound like a lot of conflict going on here-and the trick as a fiction writer would be to resolve those conflicts in a believable way. No small feat, as I am finding out:)