A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When Jane Juska retired from her job as an English teacher she decided that what she really wanted was some human contact – of the physical, male, sexual, variety. Re-entering the lists when you’re a bit past your prime is not an easy thing to do, and it’s no surprise that A Round-Heeled Woman struck a chord with so many women – divorced, widowed, empty-nesters – all feeling they’d been put out to pasture far too early and wondering what to do about it.
I doubt however that too many of them would have considered trying Jane Juska’s slightly risky tactic of placing an personal ad in the New York Review of Books:
“Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”
To her utter surprise, she was inundated with replies from hopeful suitors, which she sorted ruthlessly into “Yes”, “No” and “Maybe” piles … and then began the fraught process of making contact.
Her account of the meetings – variously disastrous, odd and hopeful – with the oddball and mostly pretty pathetic applicants are interspersed with vignettes from her life. We learn about her upbringing and schooling in the pre-Women’s Lib America of the 1950s, her early encounters with the opposite sex, her eventual (less than successful) marriage and the birth of her son; and along the way we also encounter a motley supporting cast of school friends, neighbours, prison inmates and passing strangers. Together, they provide a narrative that is in turns funny, graphic (you have been warned), outrageous, shrewd, irritating and – at times – incredibly sad. Nothing, you feel, worked out quite the way she hoped it would and although several of the men remained friends, the one she truly fell in love with – a man several decades her junior – eventually married someone of his own age.
Three years later, Jane Juska wrote Unaccompanied Women – not so much a sequel to A Round-Heeled Woman as an account of the fall-out from its publication – which achieved something of a succès de scandale. Much in demand for book signings and as a motivational speaker she is amazed by the number of people who say that her book was a game-changer for them – gave them the courage to take control of their own lives instead of remaining in their well-worn furrows to the end of their frustrated days. She’s also slightly unnerved to find that she’s expected to be an expert in the field of human relationships and dish out advice to the lonely, the frustrated and the just plain confused, in spite of having a personal life that could be uncharitably described as a bit of a train wreck.
Some of the major male characters from the first book are reintroduced – but only to tell us that they have died or become ‘just good friends’ or are content to conduct a pseudo-relationship via a computer terminal.
In fact, by the end of Unaccompanied Women she’s pretty much decided that there are worse things in life than being a woman alone – but it’s a conclusion that’s tinged with a sadness – the sort of sadness that comes from bowing to the inevitable and resorting to the unsatisfactory consolation of counting your blessings.
At the beginning of her extraordinary ‘late life adventures in sex and romance’, Jane Juska said that although her intellect tells her a woman doesn’t need a man to be “A Woman”, her heart and her body tell her otherwise. It’s not a contention I can agree with. I didn’t agree with it when I first read the book 8 years ago, and I don’t agree with it now. It may be that our brains are simply wired differently. Being a bit younger – and growing up in the 60s and 70s – I don’t have 1950s’ luggage that she carries with her and speaks about so honestly. (I, of course, have no such luggage …) But be that as it may, I liked the woman whose voice sprang from the pages so vividly … and I liked her even more when I interviewed her recently for Vulpes, during the run of the stage version of A Round Heeled Woman in London.
She writes as she is – funny, intelligent, forthright and painfully honest. She and her books may not be to everyone’s taste and I might have occasionally found myself wanting to shake her until her teeth rattled – but in a world dominated by the anodyne, the mawkish and the lowest common denominator – she’s an absolute gem.
A Round-Heeled Woman: Vintage. 2004. ISBN: 978-0099466703. 288pp.
Unaccompanied Women: Vintage. 2007. ISBN: 978-0099481294. 272pp.