Whenever middle-aged women are dismissed as frumpy, dried up, wittering or irrelevant, I think of Jimmy Savile. When I read the three official reports into his crimes in hospitals, I was stuck that the only people who ever saw through him were older nurses. While the 1970s male medical establishment was supine to his fame, these women chased him out of wards, recoiled at his charm, tried to use their physical heft and moral ballast to bar his way.
This may seem an odd way to begin a review of Allison Pearson’s new comic novel How Hard Can it Be? but this story of a woman approaching her 50th birthday is so bleakly full of loss – of fecundity, figure, employment status, marital happiness and hormonal equilibrium – that I feel an urgent need to put a counter view lest younger women despair. Honestly, this is not the whole picture: you have much to gain.
How Hard Can it Be? is the sequel to Pearson’s 2003 bestseller I Don’t Know How She Does It. The novel, later adapted into a film starring Sarah Jessica Parker, follows Kate Reddy a 30-something woman trying to combine a City career with motherhood at a time when most employers made zero allowance for children. (In 1997, I was so terrified of telling my boss I was pregnant, I didn’t ’fess up until 20 weeks, by which time everyone had guessed.) Today’s parents, who routinely shoot off early for a school play, have Pearson to thank for popularising a discussion about work-life balance that enlightened corporate policy and improved statutory leave.
In this book we catch up with an older, sadder, even more stressed Reddy. Her teenage daughter is sexting her bottom to boys, her husband is having a Lycra-clad mid-life crisis, leaving the family so broke Kate must return to the City, where a woman may now talk about her kids but still needs to lie about her age. Yet while young Reddy was a witty companion through the sandpit longueurs of parenthood, I find older Reddy’s constant catastrophising a total downer.
Her state of mind, we learn, is a product of the menopause: her memory is shot, she’s overcome with shapeshifting anxiety, her periods are haywire. But here’s the truth about the menopause: even women going through it don’t really want to read much about it. Recent meno-books, even Christa D’Souza’s excellent The Hot Topic, have not sold well. Hormones, boremoans. A woman wants to digest a few useful articles, seek treatment as required, then get on with her damn life.
But there are millions for whom Reddy was a spirited everywoman, ensuring this book is a guaranteed hit. And it is well written, the passages on coping with elderly parents particularly poignant. She perfectly captures that odd heartbreak of missing your children’s old selves, the toddlers who took your hand and showered you with love, as they are replaced by sour, resentful teenagers who inhabit a baffling new world in which you are an unwelcome alien.
As a novelist Pearson is far warmer and more subtle than her Telegraph columns, which lately have drifted into right-wing knee-jerkery – after the Manchester stadium bomb she tweeted a call for mass internment – unworthy of her first-class mind.
Yet this book leaves me frustrated, annoyed, wanting to shout: “Bloody hell, Allison, it’s really not that bad!” Kate’s solutions are too often cosmetic – she diets, and has lunchtime liposuction to get into a frock – unhelpful when the most miserable older women are those still putting too much store by their looks. In middle age the mirror no longer whispers “hello, gorgeous” just, at best, a cursory “you’ll do”. Wise women run from their reflection, out into the world.
Knowing that men don’t notice you any more can be liberating. They won’t want to fuck you – so you might as well say what you think! Yet Reddy seeks to be rescued by a rich American Prince Charming when most superannuated Cinderellas know they have to buy their own golden coach. In middle age you look at 20-somethings preening ferociously in the ladies, playing cute, putting on baby voices to speak to guys, and feel a wave of protectiveness and empathy. But also a deep weariness: it’s so much easier to be a woman than a girl.
And Allison Pearson ignores the menopause good news: progesterone, the nurturing hormone that makes women care for others and avoid conflict, is depleted. So when a teenager or a husband shouts that they’ve lost their keys, the magic chemical which once had you scurrying around the house is gone. You literally could not care less even if you tried.
In my experience, far from skittering on life’s surface having panic attacks, women grow braver, bolder, stronger and more independent with age. Two of my friends suddenly got divorced at the age of 50 after being miserable for years and have discovered great satisfaction in being, for the first time in their lives, alone with only themselves to please. These matrons you see at the Chelsea Flower Show, or learning to paint or speak Italian have probably put others first for decades. Yet they will be mocked as desiccated saddos filling their lonely days far more than lone men taking up fishing or cycling or sex tourism.
I feel my mind shift: I am more serious, bored by shopping or silly TV. I am suddenly brilliant at parallel parking: honestly, I can shoehorn into the tiniest space and wonder – Cordelia Fine, forgive me – if my brain has become more male. I am kinder about human failings, but unforgiving of the flakey or cruel.
Other friends have had a late-onset burst of ambition and drive: they look at younger men gunning for a big job and think: “Hang on, dude, why shouldn’t it be me?” They have lived, learned, lost loved ones. They bear the battle scars of childbirth and cancer. They feel – after a lifetime of making themselves smaller, sweeter, nicer, perpetually budging up to accommodate others – a sudden hard-won right to speak out, to take up space.
I wonder if societal disgust for the post-menopausal woman isn’t really fear. Battle axe, harridan, old bag, witch. Untethered from men’s approval, wise to men’s tricks, the hard labour of feminine artifice mainly abandoned, knowing how the world works and feeling they have earned their place within it, they are a formidable force. Hard it can be, but magnificent too.
Janice Turner writes for The Times
How Hard Can it Be?
The Borough Press, 480pp, £14.99