Bananas are better

The Improvised Woman

Marcelle Clements <em>W W Norton, 351pp, £18.95</em>

I laid my withers on the line for this book, fully prepared to have them thoroughly wrung. I was excited at the prospect of learning how energetic, sensible American women had resolved what is indeed an alarming phenomenon of our times: the problem of a plethora of women sans men.

In the 1920s and 1930s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1940s and 1950s, a tranche of women were left unmated because their potential partners had been killed in the two world wars. What is new about the present level of single women in western society is that their existence derives from the choices made by the women themselves. Some have chosen to remain unpartnered. Some have chosen to take a series of partners, living as single women only in the interstices. Some have chosen to separate from, or divorce "legal" partners (that is, husbands). Only comparatively few have never found the man of their dreams - or having found and married him, lost him to death.

What this means, in the UK at least, is that we have among us a large number of interesting, charming, attractive, intelligent women in early middle age who are single. Many of them have excellent jobs, good salaries, healthy bank balances and handsome houses and other assorted consumer goodies. What they don't have is a loving, live-in, lifetime partner.

Matters are much the same in the USA, where there are 43 million single women out of a total population of almost 250 million. These women, Clements writes, are "powerful sociocultural players" who will be a "major contributing factor in defining the future of our politics and economy - transforming our cultural ideals". More and more women, she adds, "feel that emancipation is at least as desirable - and in some cases more important than - a successful marriage".

Hooray, I thought, they've licked the problem there. Can we use their answers here? And what did I get as I ploughed on? Well, to borrow the language of The Improvised Woman, zilch. Diddlysquat. Nuttin'. Okay, perhaps it isn't written in exactly those terms, but it feels as though it is, since swathes of the text are verbatim records of what the author calls a mosaic - clusters of excerpts from thousands of pages of interviews with single women. How many women, out of interest? Fully 100, boasts the blurb. Out of that 43 million. And it took Clements seven years to collect it, too. Arduous or what?

Perhaps I wouldn't be so sharp about this book if I wasn't so disappointed. Where are all those feisty, indomitable a-woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle singles having a glorious, successful, got-it-all-together time over there, all set to act as a beacon to our women on their own? They sure as hell aren't in these pages. Instead, we have the likes of Evelyn B who, despite being a respected mathematician, "once had all the attributes to be a class A wife"; Abigail Z, the architect who is "wistful" as she recalls going to weddings; and Blanche W, an endocrinologist, "50, willowy, blonde, expressive, very feminine", who doesn't miss being married but wishes she had someone to kiss. And so on ad nauseam.

Sadly, for all the seven years of labour that went into the writing of this book, it is messy, disorganised and shapeless. There is no attempt at a taxonomy, unwilling singles are mixed up with widows and serial monogamists, lone-parent widows with women who used sperm banks, 25 year olds with 80 year olds. The text is sprinkled with comments that aspire towards significance but are actually banal, as in the subhead to the section on condoms: "Prophylaxis is no longer just a means of protection, it's become the indicator of character."

As for the inevitable sex, there is much that is drearily obvious about the ineptitude of men and the tyranny of the penis. There is, too, an unwittingly hilarious description of masturbation in which readers are told that "cucumbers are too big - bananas are better - oh, you keep the peel on, otherwise it would get all mushy."

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special