The Ten Year Nap
by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Riverhead Books
832 pages, 2008
And Baby Makes Free
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Wolitzer’s terrific novel follows the lives of four women who have left the workforce to raise children. Amy Lamb, Jill Hamlin, Roberta Sokolov and Karen Yip are all talented, highly educated, happily married New Yorkers when their babies arrive. And those babies change everything. Suddenly the twelve-week maternity leave is insufficient; each woman, with varying degrees of remorse and financial security, leaves the workforce to tend her offspring.
Wolitzer’s over arching theme is the arguable failure of Feminism: yes, women can now be nearly anything they wish (glass ceiling notwithstanding), but somehow somebody forgot about childcare. Yes, men are getting better about equal parenting, but the workforce in general is achingly slow to accommodate those women who, at the height of their careers, are also anxiously feeling their biological clocks ticking. So the hot young lawyer/doctor/statistician/artist “drops out.” It’s only temporary, she reassures herself. Besides there is the child, or children, who, when small, demand every waking (and often sleeping) moment.
But then the children get a little older: they begin attending school. Suddenly the full-time mother has a five-hour hole in the middle of her day. It’s not quite enough time to return to the law firm, too much time for the gym and the mundane tasks constituting household management. Wolitzer’s women, whose children all attend the same insanely expensive private school, find themselves squarely in this intractable position. Each reacts differently.
Though The Ten Year Nap is related from multiple viewpoints, we hear most from Amy Lamb, who was a lawyer before giving birth to the precocious Mason, now ten. She lives with Mason and her husband, fellow lawyer Leo Bruckner, in an apartment they cannot afford. Amy is an excellent mother to Mason, who needs her less and less, and would be an attentive wife if Leo would let her. But Leo, though kind, is distant and harassed. Thus Amy is lonely and bored, knowing she should return to work but lacking the impetus -- and confidence -- to do so. One humiliating interview is adequate proof: lawyers now do their own word processing, using the ominous-sounding Juxtapose BriefScan.
Amy befriends Penny Ramsay, another mother at the school. Penny is different from the other mothers, a source of whispered speculation. A museum curator, Penny is petite and attractive, her children lovely and well-behaved. Her husband, Greg, is a monster, but he’s a wealthy monster. The other mothers marvel, wondering how Penny manages her busy, perfect life.
While on a school-mandated “safety walk,” Amy and Penny run into Penny’s colleague, Ian Janeway. Within moments it is clear Ian and Penny are having an affair, plunging Amy into the breathless role of confidant, meeting not only Penny but Ian for secret lunches, acting as a necessary audience to their illicit love. Amy becomes obsessed with her new friend, both upsetting and mystifying the other women.
Amy’s best friend, Jill Hamlin, has left New York with her husband, Donald, to raise their adopted daughter, Nadia, in suburban Holly Hills. Though Jill was an excellent student, she fared poorly in graduate school, failing her thesis defense. Stunned, adrift, she worked briefly for a film company. When that folded, she tried becoming pregnant, enduring infertility treatments, finally adopting Nadia from a Siberian orphanage.
Of all Nap’s characters, Jill is the most psychologically frail. Her mother, a one-time actress, committed suicide after a lifetime of depressive despair. Jill herself, once the golden girl, tall, pretty, smart, and athletic, finds her own failure unbearable. Worse, Nadia is no recompense: a sweetly docile child, at six she is friendless and cannot read. Jill suffers silently, insomniac, popping Noctrem, an obvious stand-in for Ambien, to help her sleep through the silent nights in her grand suburban home.
Roberta Sokolov stopped painting when her children, Harry and Grace, were born. Instead she threw herself into crafts projects with her kids, reminding herself all the while that craft, while not art, was something. She and husband Nathaniel live in a cramped apartment with one tremendous benefit: it’s paid for. Nate, once a full-time puppeteer, has sidelined characters Nuzzle and Peeps to weekend performances, working as a cameraman to pay the bills.
Roberta is the first of the women to attempt some sort of action. Taking up abortion rights, she volunteers to drive a sixteen-year-old South Dakota girl to the state’s sole abortion clinic, briefly bonding with the provincial Brandy Gillop, whose artistic aspirations moves Roberta to make promises she won’t keep.
Only Karen Yip, statistical genius, mother of twins Caleb and Johnno, is content to remain at home. In Karen, Wolitzer slyly turns stereotype on its head. The daughter of Asian immigrants, Karen grew up buried in math books, attended MIT and found a high-paying position as a statistical analyst. She is, initially, every Asian stereotype. But unlike the other women, Karen is completely happy with her life. Occasionally Karen dons her business suit for job interviews, where recruiters eagerly offer her huge sums. She invariably turns them down, dreamily returning home, where she lives in a world of numbers. Her parents are thrilled with her “success:” a wealthy husband, a beautiful duplex, brilliant boys.
Wolitzer laces flashbacks throughout the book, including chapters devoted to Nadia Comaneci and Georgette Magritte. The women’s mothers all make appearances. Amy’s mother, early feminist Antonia Lamb, takes up historical writing, closing the study door on her stunned adolescent daughters. Jill’s mother, Susan, pulled from her beloved theater, collapses beneath the weight of conventional motherhood. Chu Hua Tang, Karen’s mother, spends her life in a blistering restaurant kitchen, making dumplings. After a lifetime on her feet, she is only too happy to see her daughter living well. As for Norma Sokolov, she is an unwitting feminist, leaving the domestic sphere to help husband Al in his tabletop decorating business, where she soon becomes indispensable.
Gradually, Amy, Jill and Roberta inch forward. Amy’s moment arrives on the island of St. Doe, where her family has joined Penny’s for the Christmas holidays. The exclusive resort is far beyond Amy and Leo’s means, but Leo wearily agrees to the trip. When Ian makes an unwelcome appearance, disaster strikes, leaving Amy to realize Penny’s shortcomings. Upon arriving home, she repairs her weakened friendship with Jill and confronts Leo, who admits they are in terrible financial trouble. Amy returns to work, where her dusty skills -- and self-respect -- resurrect themselves.
Jill finally confronts Nadia’s difficulties, taking her to a learning specialist, who concurs that Nadia is indeed a little slow. Despite this heartbreaking news, Jill also learns Nadia is musically gifted. The little girl is given private singing lessons and begins blossoming.
Of all the women, it is Roberta Sokolov who suffers most vividly. Her attempts to paint end in failure: her talent has withered from disuse, and nothing will coax it back. Adding to her pain is the late yet deserved success of her husband, whose weekend puppeteering finally pays off spectacularly. Where Roberta once took comfort in her marriage as the genial refuge of two artistic failures, now there is only one. Roberta is deeply, silently angry for a long time. She begins volunteering at a medical clinic for low-income women. Soon she is holding a paid position; soon she is running the clinic. Nothing will replace her lost talent -- not her compelling job, not her husband’ success, not the gorgeous Harlem Brownstone Nathaniel’s new salary affords them. But she is alive, vital --working.
Wolitzer's writing is wonderful, amusing, warm, with an old-fashioned capaciousness allowing room for a host of details. Technology pushes inexorably on the women, leading them to tap nervously on Blackberries. They live in homes where “Almost everything ... required a plug.” In one amusing, utterly apt scene, Mason teaches his grandmother and her consciousness-raising group, all of them now aging women, how to navigate the Internet and download photos of their grandchildren. In a contemporary nod to a timeless problem, Jill takes a double dose of her precious Noctrem, only to awaken in a neighbor’s home at two a.m. The events of September 11th still live in the women’s memories as occasional, unwelcome jolts, coloring the present moment.
Despite her fraught subject, Wolitzer never reverts to polemic. She does not blame men, politicians, the inexorable demands of corporate life. Instead, she shows the problem of being female in all its aspects: from Brandy Gillop’s mother, who is grateful for her casino job, where she may sit down, to the glossy Penny Ramsay, who walks away from Ian Janeway as if he were a gnat, each woman has made different choices -- some willingly, others not -- bending to the essentially impossible proposition of childrearing in contemporary Western society. There is, Wolitzer observes, no single answer or simple solution. The brute truth, which she is careful to include, is that most women do not have the choice to drop out -- a woman’s income, be it single or dual, is critical to her family’s economic survival. Antonia Lamb’s fervent hope that “everyone would work, everyone would have power, everyone would help out at home,” has not come to pass. The question of how women can or do deal with that reality, even in Wolitzer’s talented hands, remains largely unanswered. | February 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.