Wednesday, November 23, 2011


This maybe a huge, great Thelma-and-Louise-off-a-cliff-leap here, but I think best-selling women’s fiction author, Jane Green and I are kindred spirits.  We are British ex-pats living in the north east of America--she in chic Westport, Connecticut, where I nannied for a brief orbit of the sun; me in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. We’ve both spent considerable time in New York, we are/we have been married to Americans and we like the ritual of cooking: rich stews, fragrant casseroles, warm, farmy, comfort fodder!  The one great fat fly in the ointment is that she mothers arks full of children.  She even cooks for them all.  Whereas I… I’m gestating novels and not much else.
I suppose I have been thinking about this a lot lately as, not only have two girlfriends given birth in the last week, and six that I know about in the last year, but I am listening to Jane Green’s Babyville.  It’s a wee bit dated with pop-culture commentary, the heroines don’t text or tweet or FB at all, they drink lattes like they don’t contain 200+ calories, but the overall story supersedes these flinch-worthy retro references, because to me, it is about early thirties British females discovering the best of NYC food, cock and the unignorable tock of their biological clock. 

In Babyville we meet Sam—happily up the duff; Maeve—ruthlessly career-focused and unhappily up the duff; Julia—desperate to be up the duff, and as mad as a rather mad eye-rolling-cow circa 1998 rural England; and Bella the urban Manhattanite who—thus far—is plagued with neither dictatorial ovaries nor a pregnancy plotline.

I must confess, Julia, at first, was not a character I could really sympathize with.  With a fabulous career in TV production, and not exactly the most enviable relationship, why would she go so bat-shit-crazy that she would drop £200 at Boots Pharmacy (at a time) on pregnancy testing kits?  That’s just not rational.  That’s bonkers!  Think of the nice pair of tan-topped black leather riding boots she could buy with that?  The dress at Karen Millen?  The flight to Paris and back!  This, methought, is just the sort of lunatic that gives sane thirty-somethings a bad name, and makes men sigh and use the condescending phrase “women’s issues.”

Julia is, undoubtedly, held captive by her raging hormones and obsession to conceive, and her whack-job behaviour—picture her in a white sheet make-shift toga and penis-carved candles—loses her the sympathy of her partner, her colleagues and even, just a smidgen, her friends.

I have far, far more empathy with sharp-suited and pointy-toed Maeve.  She has drive, ambition and no time to think of anyone but herself, least of all a baby.

And then it happens.  The unthinkable.  After a few tequilas, there she is, in an unlit alley way, consoling Julia’s now ex-non-baby-daddy, a sympathetic snog, a grope and bing bang, bang, bang, boom, it’s an unwanted embryo.  Within weeks this well-put-together woman becomes the victim of her hormones, a screaming harridan, a chocolate fiend.  (I realised at this point in the story that I really miss English chocolate, particularly Picnic, Lion Bar and Double Decker.  FYI, Christmas Gift Purchasers.)

So I started thinking about the cliché: do women really have a biological clock?  What if some run really slowly, or some women don’t hear theirs because they are focused on something else and then, Brrrrinnnnnnnnnggggg it rings, but the time they hear it, it has been whacked to snooze so many times that now opportunity has passed and it’s too late, and heck, sorry sister, you were too busy la la-ing your own song… what then?  What?

The Duggar Tribe. 19 children and counting...
Seriously, her uterus must be the size of China.
A woman’s biological clock, so I understand, is triggered by the presence of certain hormones.  Some women obviously have more than others.  I’m thinking Ma Duggar and the Octo-mom are the Jose Canseco of the female egg world.  Is this age specific?  Frame specific?  Diet-specific?  Is it something that is influenced by those around you: all close friends spawning, and causing contagious ‘something-in-the-water’ breeding?  Is it affected by circadian rhythms?  The lunar phase?  The day light perceived and timed by magical receptors in our retinas, sending hormones surging and knickers a-plunging?  Or, is it something that is fired off into the stratosphere if you meet the right person?

Unlike men, women do have limited fertility.  Men have little age-related decline in fertility since they have stem cells that can produce semen all day long.  Yeah, thanks!  That’s one in the eye from Oh Great Creator/ Evolution/ Other.  Instead we are born with 2 million eggs and we never produce anymore, they just… DIE.  Like lemmings.  Every month.  There’s some dying right now… “AHHHHHhhhhhh!”  I can hear them.  30 to be precise.  30 a day.  1000 a month.  13,000 eggs a year.  Only 400 eggs get to ovulation in our lifetime, which means, by the time we hit 40ish, the larder is eggless, yolkless. 

That’s one sad little breakfast muffin with no eggs, just sausage.  (Make mine a soppressata with provolone, grazie!)

Is it any wonder women in their 30’s can become hob-knob-crackers-woof-and-trail-mix-nuts crazy?  Of course not, they have organs committing hari-kari everyday!  How would you feel?

And now we are living to an older age, and climbing the career ladder, more couples/singles are putting off spawning, but Egads! By mid-thirties 25% of women are infertile.  That's 1 in 4.  1 in fucking 4!  Did I mention lots of my friends have kiddos?  *Gulp*  As we age the number of eggs and the quality of eggs go down.  Infertility is an epidemic.  More western world people are visiting doctors for infertility issues, not heart disease or diabetes.  In.fer.tility.

Shit.  Maybe Julia was not so nutzoid, after all.  Maybe it is just fear that sends our biological clocks a-buzzing.  The urgent, unignorable wake up call that signals, “HOLY CRAP, we’re dying here.  Would you just throw us a bone, you selfish, work-obsessed bitch?”

Maybe the cliché biological clock is merely awareness.   As we age, we become aware of our limited availability to produce the perfect 2.4 pigeon-pair family.  And maybe the conception of this life-altering nugget of knowledge, fused with other factors is what primes the alarm.

I know it’s changed for me.  I know now that three meals a day are better than the one I felt so virtuous about eating.  I know that the less-than-one-hundred-pounds I weighed five years ago would have housed a womb about as welcoming as Wyoming.  I know now, that just because so-and-so has a brat who does not understand “no,” who constantly has a runny nose and sticky fingers—which he generously wipes on me—does not necessarily mean that all children (namely, mine) will be badly behaved; I understand that nurturing and educating a little bundle of cells can be the most miraculous gift one could give and receive.  A bundle I hope to teach compassion, to have passions, integrity and honour; to know French, some Italian, spellings, Capitals, Kings and Queens, inorganic chemistry, horse-riding, swimming; how to make creme brulee and risotto; and to say "lovely, smashing and super!"

Sure, awareness has me staring into the face of the alarm clock, like it is 4.29am and I wish I could sleep a little longer, but I can’t.  I close my eyes, but the anticipation holds me prisoner.  One can never lose consciousness in such circumstances. 

But there is a catalyst: a magical, mystical overriding element that speeds up time and suddenly it is 6am and the little tinny alarm is tolling like the bells in Notre Dame.  “The Bells, Esmeralda, the bells!”

And that, Dear Reader, finally, after years of falling for Non-Compatibles—whose Levis I shouldn’t touch, let alone their chromosomes—is knowing myself better: being more able to identify those I might be compatible with and whose genes I might like to comingle. 

I’m writing this because I’ve found the 180 degree change in me interesting.  I’m not speaking for womankind, just myself.  I understand there are many factors at work determining our instinct to follow our biological imperative.  I am sure those ladies so desperate to mother that they go to sperm banks and sign up for their carefully selected semen, feel their biological clock a-tocking just as strongly as if they had just met the Love-of-their-Life.  But I've needed the latter.

Will I be racing to Babys R Us and signing up for a registry?  Absolutely not.  (Sorry Mum.)  But maybe I’m paying more attention now.  Maybe there is more reason to?  Or maybe I am just some character in a Jane Green novel, who learns that there are some instincts that trump even work ethic.

Maeve: He has become, other than Viv, my most favourite person in the whole world, and I can’t think of a better person to be raising my child with.  I love the idea that my child will be half mine, and half his.  To be honest, I can’t think of a better combination.  Other than Steve McQueen, of course. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so comfortable with a person, other than my family.  You know, you’re my best friend.”  --I’m not sure quite what has come over me, because spontaneous outbursts of affection are really not my style, but I don’t think I ever really knew how important it was to have someone before.  And I don’t mean another half.  I just mean someone to share things with, someone like a best friend, or a brother, someone like him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Jane Green, Babyville

Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's all gone dark, Mother.

It’s rather curious that I write contemporary women’s fiction.   I have been pondering this a lot lately, since the novels that have influenced me most this year have all been much, MUCH darker.  I wonder if this is an age thing, and now that I am wading into my thirties all things get just that smidgen more serious; or maybe it is a trend in the market, that I am, by chance, following; or maybe it is that I have hit a sink-hole in my life, and by reading about characters whom I would not change shoes with, even if they were Swarovski crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin’s, makes me feel better. 

Let’s examine the evidence:

It was in 2009/2010 that the then local indie bookstore manager, and great chum, Andrea, recommended Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale.  Weird title, thought I.  Doesn’t exactly look riveting.  But Andrea’s wise, doe-eyes lit up when she described it to me: “It’s the best book I have read all year.”  Now, I don’t get to read as much as I would like, so if I am going to commit to a 300+ page novel and invest my time in it, dang right I’m going with Andrea’s recommendation.

So I bought it.  I wish I had bought more books at Anthology.  I wish all Scrantonites had.  Then maybe the urban loft with red brick walls would still be filled with books, and the perpetual cough of the coffee machine and milk frother spluttering musically downstairs, rather than echoing with emptiness.  But I digress.

The book lay by my bedside.  Many times I crawled under the covers and managed a page before my roller blind eyelids would give up the fight.  So there it remained, within an arm's reach, to be buried alive by the incoming detritus of my life.

It wasn’t until this year, February 2011, I remembered I even had it.  I had traveled to Ind-ja with Indra, and there, at our hostess’s beautiful accommodations in Kerala, lay The Thirteenth Tale, well-thumbed with the spine almost calcified with use.  I was finishing a Jodi Picoult, Mum had insisted I read and I thought would be easy aeroplane material, so Indra sensed the latent possibilities of the book and got her mitts on it first.  She opened the cover and disappeared into its pages for days.
I popcorned through the rest of my novel, but every few pages I couldn’t resist peeking to my right to monitor the ever-more rapt-gaze of my friend beside me.  I finished my Picoult, but I didn’t start another.  I knew that I had to wait until Indra had finished so, finally, I could delve into the lauded literary fiction for myself.

And into the rabbit hole I fell, and was sucked under into the beautifully charted, appallingly hideous world of Vida Winter.   The first person narrative is not from Vida, however, but a bookshop owner’s daughter, Margaret, selected by Vida to write her biography.  The unbelievably believable tale of inbred identical twins born to the sister and brother of a country estate just begins the twisted saga that is to infect, fester, and bloom like gangrene. 

I turned the pages rapidly, eyes-filled and repelled with these unnatural visions, yet bulging hungrily for more.   Yes, I was in India.  Yes, the tea gardens, the tiger preserve, the chaotic squeeze of the city were fascinating, but all I wanted was to sit on the veranda overlooking the mountains, and think about what kind of Crazy would possibly cut through flesh and carve initials on his own living bone?  Gruesome, huh?  And I’m the type of person who can’t even watch the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs!

The trend continued with Audrey Niffenneger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.  This book didn’t seem to reach the acclaim of her previous novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, but I was spellbound, enraptured, indivisible from each thick cream hardback page.  This is a haunting tale of identical twins (yes, twins, again.  “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice), who, following their aunt’s untimely death, travel to Highgate, London, to receive her estate.  Robert downstairs, the deceased’s fiancé, looks after the younger versions of his much-missed Love. 

It is a beautifully-written and conceived story.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I never thought I was ‘into’ ghost stories.  The idea of gaggles of invisible dead people watching me as I shower, as I exercise, as I eat peanut butter from the jar in front of Facebook at 1am?  No thank you.  But this is Blithe Spirit-post-anesthetic-trippy-woo-eye-opening-conscious-altering!  Yup, that’s an adjective.

Lastly, the voice of Susie Salmon, “as in the fish,” is the one that is currently haunting me.  Okay, so I am just a tad late to the party with Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but GAH!  Holy gollywonkers!  Alice Sebold is the Queen of Dark.  Not in a self-conscious, overly grandiose way.  She does not spill the guts in a gratuitous style.  Her frank writing delivered by Susie's forever-fourteen year old voice has me gripping the steering wheel--the knuckles and valleys of my clenched fists tight and bone white, even at 30 mph.  Yes, I am listening to this one.  My ears have sucked up eight CDs in two days.  I have three left in which I hope Susie Salmon’s killer will be found and her family patched together, but knowing Sebold, she’s bound to twist the knife right in my cochlea.

This descent in darkness has me unraveling, deconstructing my writing and plotting novels I know cannot end happily ever after.  Is it age?  Is it just a trend?  No.  I think it is just the effect of great writing, and how it influences a receptive mind.  So buckle up, Dear Readers, I think it’s going to get pretty gritty.


Both Orpheus and Eurydice

She runs, but must look back.

Her limbs flounder incapable,

As she trips over the track. 


Her face strikes the railing,

But its marble doesn’t crack,

The skin itself submits

To this cold and rusty rack.

A colourless cheek hugs the iron

Impressed upon her skin,

As the desperation drains out

So does the fight to win.

In an iron grate,

She waits, numbed for

Her fatal Fate.

She hears it.

The slow, soporific chug

And rocking vibration,

A lullaby in her iron cradle.

The hooded executioner,

With rotating steely blades,

Approaches, head down, charging,

To Him she must obey.

Her eyes close, catatonic.

All is noise – pneumatic, mechanic

Movement up and down,

Pistons driving the motion,

Towards her sacrificial devolution.

Round and round,

Louder and Louder,

Closer, closer, closer….

The metal screech that curdles,

Brakes applied, but it still hurtles

Towards murder, it is certain.

Her eyes flash wide and frozen,

As she looks into its face

She gasps at the sheer waste,

Why didn’t she just race

Towards him keeping wits about?

Why did she have to look back?

But the blades lick the track,

And it’s too late to stop ‘em,

She’s nods at her fate--

It’s the countdown conundrum.

Out of time, she is sliced and swallowed whole,

And the armoured train just surges on.