We’re welcoming back guest blogger and fellow baby boomer, Sharon Willen, from What’s up This Time . We hope to convince her to blog more often with Oops50 because she’s such a thoughtful reviewer of books, film, music, art, etc. Here is her critique of Jill Teitelman’s new book called Saving Gracie.
The story of Ruth Kooperman’s rocky journey from carefree East Village poet to last-minute mother to single suburban mom was a bit like peering into one of those fun-house mirrors at the county fair. On so many pages I saw my own life reflected, just a bit warped or shifted off kilter.
Ruth: Jewish, almost forty, had intended to become a famous writer, but wound up teaching English and writing “poignant short stories” based on her series of calamitous relationships with men and being published in little magazines without fanfare. She pursued a career while her friends one by one got married and had babies.
Me: Jewish, single till I was thirty five, used my degree in English to begin a career in publishing and writing which morphed into teaching middle school English and writing poetry and short stories that never saw the light of day and non-fiction texts, newsletters and public relations materials published for limited distribution in the business world.
We both lived lives that mimicked TV series, “Sex and the City” – chasing adventures in the Big Apple (and around the world) that were empty fun, but might become stories worth writing about. We both viewed Motherhood as “a masochistic Olympic event others competed in for unimaginable reasons, like wrestling or the luge” until we both realized that “too much freedom was starting to feel as bad as not enough.” Pushed into a corner by the menopause clock, we each came face to face with Ruth’s deepest, most important question, “Why did I jump on the Liberation train without asking where it would take me?” However, we answered it differently.
I remember my own aghast and offended reaction when someone, a male friend, actually listened to me complain about the lack of quality men in my twenty-something social world and suggested seriously that I stop looking for a partner and start looking for a man who could be the father to my children.
What? Put the kids’ needs before my own, before I even tied the knot? No way. Not ever. When Ruth became obsessed with finding “the right man” to father the child she isn’t certain she wants but can’t stop thinking about – that’s where we parted company.
As the balance of the novel unfolded, I liked Ruth less and less. Her story went from mildly amusing to un-engaging. I found reading every niddling detail of her bad dates and impulsive behavior as uninteresting as re-reading the teen-age journals I unearthed cleaning out the basement this summer (“Went to Social Studies, nothing happened. Wish Mark S. would ask me to the prom. Wish anyone would ask me to the prom. Hope my SAT’s are high enough to get into a good college.”).
Ruth chooses the least objectionable man she comes in contact with, gets pregnant, does not get married, but manipulates her unwilling partner into a conflict-filled version of co-parenting, then abandons him for single-motherhood and gets into an ill-fated marriage with another “also ran” in the dating sweepstakes – staying ever devoted to her son, but simultaneously complaining about her lot in life at every turn of the page.
I found her character to be believable, but annoying, if not offensive. Ruth’s connection with Grace Stein at Cedar Grove Pre-school Parents’ Night, almost half-way through the book, was the turning point for me.
Grace was a more traditional Jewish woman in a storybook marriage, a talented mother and beloved member of her Synagogue and the general community as well. As they became fast friends, the character of Grace introduces an easy-going comic relief to the book that balances Ruth’s selfish whining and never-ending angst. I cared about Grace when she lost her husband Max and kept reading to find out her fate and that of her two sons when she herself was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Had it not been for Grace, I probably would have abandoned Ruth’s story.
I’m not sure that’s what Jill Teitelman meant when she (or a clever editor?) chose the title, but for me, at least, this counterpoint character was the book’s only saving grace.