Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap (Riverhead Books, $24.95), though presented as a novel, is more of an ensemble piece, where the voice of each of her female characters works best in juxtaposition with the others. It’s less plot than plotting: these are the stories of women who’ve each chosen, one way or another, to make their families their careers.
The characters in this book are booksmart, if not whip-smart. Take Amy Buckner, who has left her career in law to be home with her child; now that he’s 10, she feels deep ambivalence about returning to work. She lives vicariously (as women inevitably tend to do in womenthemed books, oddly enough) through the clandestine affair her new friend Penny Ramsey is having with a gorgeous young Englishman. Amy’s old best friend, Jill Hamlin, has moved out to the suburbs with her adopted daughter, and finds herself painfully isolated and lonely. Another mother from Amy’s son’s school, Roberta Sokolov, is a liberal-minded activist who works as a volunteer with a grassroots organization to help young women in South Dakota get abortions — yet she still finds that her life lacks definition.
The women travel through age-appropriate circles of ideas and conversation, from the crushing economic vise of family life in Manhattan to the permutations of sexuality within the context of marriage. Amy can’t figure out why her husband seems to be more attached to his BlackBerry than his libido, and discovers that in order to make economic ends meet in Manhattan, he has been labeling the couple’s expenses as work expenses to be reimbursed.
Yet two features set this book apart from the standard pink-cover genre of “chick lit.” First, a kind of chronological kaleidoscope lends the modern tribulations a welcome grounding and gravitas; Wolitzer intersperses chapters about the women of the early 21st century with stories of their mothers and their pasts, from Amy’s Canadian feminist mom to Penny’s lover’s mother, a secretary for Margaret Thatcher. The second redeeming characteristic of the book is Wolitzer’s skill with language, and her ability to convey common situations in a few wellchosen words. When pondering her son’s addiction to fantasy novels, Amy muses, “Maybe it was just that the actual world of adulthood, with its long meetings and requirements that you sit still, was too disappointing for most boys to face head-on… . At which point, in order to weather the pain of losing that last fantasy foothold, you discovered the sexual wonders of girls, with their outsized breasts, nimble tongues, and the geometrical welcome of their open legs. You replaced one type of fantasy with another, and then you never, ever had to lose that one.”
The idea behind the title — that women who opt out of the workforce to be at home with their children are, in effect, taking a nap—may at first seem depressing. But for its natural readership of intelligent women who have made this choice, women who spend most of their time alternating a monosyllabic, child-friendly vocabulary with a polysyllabic echo chamber of self-examination, this book will resonate. Under the piles of to-be-folded clothing and behind the wheels of the SUVs picking up four-year olds, there are unspoken words, frustrations, bittersweet regrets and, occasionally, brilliance.
Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.