- - Tuesday, May 23, 2017



By Claire Dederer

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 256 pages

Even those of us who have not yet had a midlife crisis know what to expect when one arrives because lifestyle magazines heavily promote them. They may show up in office dress insisting on a debit and credit analyses of success and failure. You will probably get pats on the back if you survive this. But they can also erupt as a dark cloud of second (or 92nd) thoughts about a partner contracted for ever and ever in an earlier decade.

You might get a divorce, a huge bill and a pity party out of this one. Or midlife crises can — actually, they will — appear as witchy miseries about wrinkles, gray hair, widening waistlines. No worries. The magazines tell you which products to buy to deal with those and similar indignities.

Magazines are not so quick with cookie-cutter consolations when the midlife reckoning arrives as “the girl you were, a disastrous pirate slut of a girl.” Claire Dederer was 44 years old when the shade of her earlier self moved in on her. She was happily married, the mother of two children, a successful writer, whose first book “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses” was a 2011 best-seller.

Did she welcome the pirate slut? Perhaps not at first, but she opened her basement door and rooted through boxes of baby clothes and old textbooks to find the diaries of her teens and 20s. Extracts from these are now chapter epigraphs in her latest memoir, “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning.”

Aged 12 she wondered if “thoughts of death will ever leave my mind.” At 14 she is sick of Sam because “he’s too chicken to do anything.” At 15 she was “sick of these boring preppies.” She also hates the boys in her class because “they classify all girls … who are even a little bit pretty as class-skipping sluts.” These criticisms did not stop her, then or later, from having sex with lots of them … lots and lots of them. And often it didn’t matter who.

Reflecting that writers write about things that have fascinated them, she reflects, “It was probably inevitable that I write something about sex.” Her preoccupation with both her past and present carnal adventures continued for a year after the pirate slut arrived to fuel her erotic fires. She admits, “I wondered what the hell was going on. Was everyone gripped by these thoughts? I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to confess exactly what I was going through, which seemed embarrassing, and what would my parents in law think?”

She got over her reservations and “Love and Trouble” is the result. It takes readers from the early days of getting together with other midlife women friends to cry — though in Seattle, her hometown, she says, “We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex.”

She goes back to her idyllic childhood with an admired brother and her mother’s hippie boyfriend — also admired. The teen diaries focus on the angst of school and boys. “All I write about is boys, boys, BOYS,” she noted at 16.

She ended up at college in Oberlin, but dropped out. She recalls a grittier Seattle than the one we have today. She was into its music scene. She followed a physics professor to Australia, and hung out in tough part of Sydney while he spent Christmas with his parents in New Zealand.

Her middle-aged self shows up at literary conferences. She meets guys. Thinks about the possibilities. Pursues some of them. Thinks about film director Roman Polanski, accused of the rape of a 15-year old, and writes him letters. Talks to her artist friend Victoria. Takes trips with her. She teaches a class on memoir-writing and reflects that she is “the nuttiest person in the room.” You wonder what she will confess or observe or remember or think about next.

“Love and Trouble” is not an autobiography with all that form’s pretenses to completeness, but a memoir of formative times. War experiences, reminiscences of a famous friend, life in political office are the memoirist’s stock in trade. Claire Dederer is different. She picks out private exploits that people rarely mention except to bosom buddies. By writing about them she makes her readers play the buddy role while she is the exhilarating friend: smart, clever, serious and funny.

You may not be able to put down “Love and Trouble” until you finish it. You might have to pick it right back up again to check you really read it.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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