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Single State of the Union

Erika Nanes

This collection of essays explores many of the issues with which single women find themselves struggling: disapproving relatives, indifferent non-boyfriends, indecision about whether to have the fling or the baby or both.


Single State of the Union

Publisher: Seal
Subtitle: Single Women Speak Out on Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Contributors: Diane Mapes (Editor)
Author: Diane Mapes
Price: $14.95
Length: 288
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1580052029
US publication date: 2007-02
Amazon

Ah, the single woman in America. Thanks to the wonders of Hollywood, we all know exactly what her life is like. If Mattel made a Single Barbie, she would come equipped with tiny Manolos, (from, of course, Sex and the City); a plastic rabbit and pot, (Fatal Attraction); and, of course, the obligatory cat, (also plastic). Each accoutrement embodies one of the many prejudices against the woman without a man: narcissistic and materialistic; unstable, obsessive and pathetic. Thirty years after the high-water mark of second wave feminism, when Gloria Steinem declared "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", perceptions of the single woman are still determined by her relationship or lack thereof to men.

We need to get rid of this stereotype before Mattel really does decide to market it to eight-year-olds, (especially if lead paint is involved). That's why I had high hopes for Single State of the Union: Single Women Speak Out on Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Edited by Diane Mapes, a Seattle-based writer who describes herself as "happily single". this collection of essays explores many of the issues with which single women find themselves struggling: disapproving relatives, indifferent non-boyfriends, indecision about whether to have the fling or the baby or both. When I first flipped through the book, I was sure that I would love it.

And yet, like a disappointing date, the book didn't quite live up to my expectations. For one thing, the quality of the essays was woefully uneven. While some moved me with their honesty and poignancy, the essay by Amy Hudock, about caring for her cancer-ridden mother, particularly stood out, an alarming number seemed irrelevant or unfocused. I didn't particularly care about Sasha Cagen's flirtation with a reality TV show about single women at the beginning of her piece, and I cared even less by the end. Nor could I tell how Suzanne Cope's "Gold Shoes", which derives its narrative impact from infidelity, was especially relevant to the unique concerns of single women.

To be fair, most of the essays in the collection did address those concerns, specifically the bemusement and suspicion with which single women are often confronted. Jane Hodges's "You Can't Go Home Again", in which the author feels betrayed by her old high school counselor's disappointment that she isn't married, is one of the more successful essays on this theme. But many of the essays on this topic begin to sound similar after awhile each writer insists that she “loves! being! single!” in spite of the constant pressure to settle down, or simply settle, from relatives, friends, and strangers. Given the prevalence of TV shows like "The Bachelor" and "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire", in which women compete for the chance to marry anyone with a penis and a pulse, it is clearly still necessary to make the point that women's lives do not revolve around the presence of said anyone.

At the same time, the frequency and vehemence with which the essays voice this sentiment implies the very opposite of what the book seems to want to suggest, namely, that the lives of single women include a broader variety of concerns than those related to dating and mating. Nor can one avoid noticing that many of these same essayists manage to mention, albeit in passing, a recently acquired boyfriend/husband/partner. It's hard not to feel that, protests aside, it is still important that the prince show up eventually, even if the princess has already learned to lay drywall, toilet train a toddler and wield a vibrator on her own.

The strongest essays in the collection are the ones slightly less reducible to "I am single woman, hear me roar." In particular, the sections "Unwed Mothers" and "I Married Adventure" contain some thoughtful pieces on the non-traditional paths chosen by many single women. Rachel Sarah's essay about the vitriolic reaction to her blog post about dating as a single mother is particularly sobering. That being said, the collection is often at its best when it is at its funniest. Judy McGuire's riff on the role of farts in relationships; Lynn Harris's story about the differences between her and her twenty-year-old wilderness guide, (she eats sushi, he eats calf testicles); Suzanne Scholsberg's account of going 1,358 days without sex, those alone would be worth the price of the book.

Still, many of the essays collected here have a vaguely familiar feel and not in a good way. I would have preferred to see essays on a wider variety of topics and from a wider variety of perspectives. In particular, most of these contributors seem to be middle-class; that is, they discuss their choice to remain single without acknowledging the economic constraints that make such a choice impossible for many. This omission begs the question of whether the single life or, as these authors would have it, the single lifestyle, is a privilege available only to women of means, as much a marker of class as the famous Manolos from the show that dare not speak its name. In a world where the hourly wage of the average American worker, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1970, all women, single and otherwise, should be posing just such questions.

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