The title of Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel refers to the break four female friends take from the working world to raise their children. We come into the story at the point where none of the children are needing a stay-at-home mom as much, so the women are considering a return to the workplace. Most of the action takes place in Manhattan; only one of the main characters has moved with her family to the suburbs.
It’s always challenging at first to keep multiple characters and names straight, but Wolitzer skillfully establishes their distinct personalities. Amy is an ex-attorney, married to an attorney who still works at the firm where they met. She wistfully notices that he has a new female confidant in the workplace, a role she used to fill. Though he tries his best to be attentive, her attempts to entertain him with details of her day as a mom aren’t as compelling to him as the workplace stories they used to share. She has a vague feeling (and the cajoling of her feminist mother) that tell her she should go back to practicing law, or, failing that, find rewarding volunteer work, but hasn’t managed to do either. Her husband shields her from the family finances, so she doesn’t know in detail how big the gap is between their income and their lifestyle.
Jill is the only character who’s left the city. Her mother’s suicide has cast a shadow over her life, coloring her relationship with her adopted Russian daughter, Nadia.
“You know how they always say that when a parent kills herself it’s like she’s leaving the door open for the child? And then that door is alway open?”
“For you it’s shut,” Amy said. “Click. I have just shut it.”
“No,” said Jill. “Nadia shut it.” They were quiet.
Roberta and her husband Nathaniel are artists, only able to afford living in Manhattan due to the fluke of inheriting a free apartment. They met when they were both doing puppetry shows; Nathaniel still ekes out a living doing this, but Roberta, who was once a serious painter, has decided to stay home, hoping to work on her painting there. Gradually she thinks less about her own art, and spends her creative energies doing craft projects with her kids.
For a long time, whenever people asked her about what she did for a living, she always said, “Artist,” though that implied that she was compensated on a regular basis, which wasn’t true. Then, during the period when she began to support herself by becoming a puppeteer, she would tell them, “Puppeteer and artist.” In recent years, she’d say, “I used to be an artist and a puppeteer, but the I had kids. I still try to do some art when I can.” But her voice was stiff, for she knew that the financial necessity of puppetry had eclipsed art, and then, finally, motherhood had eclipsed both, bringing with it the thing called craft, which was ubiquitous in both childhood and motherhood.
Karen Yip, the last of the four women, is a statistical analyst. She and her banker husband, Wilson, met in the dining hall at MIT, at the vegan steam table.
…there they were, Karen Tang from San Francisco’s Chinatown and Wilson Yip from New York City’s Chinatown, both freshmen, skinny, and slight. It was 1984, and Wilson, a nervous, hyperventilating type who played bass in a punk band on campus called Fermat, looked worried as he regarded the foods on Karen’s plate, and finally, though they were strangers, he spoke. “Sprouts have a fairly high incidence of E. coli 0157,” he blurted out… When Wilson confessed to her that before he went to sleep at night he lay in bed reciting a litany of prime numbers to himself — Lucas prime, or maybe Mersenne, whatever the night seemed to call for (“For me, it’s like choosing a wine,” he had explained) — she was shocked, feeling that she’d located her other half. To this day reciting sequences of prime numbers aloud at night was a ritual they both still enjoyed.
The four women resolve their work/home dilemmas in ways as different as they are from each other. Their marriages are tested by pressures from the outside as well as within; from the change that occurs when they remove themselves, even temporarily, from the world of work outside the home; from the resulting creeping feeling of self-doubt that attacks all of them at one time or another. Wolitzer succeeds in keeping all four balls in the air: we are drawn into the lives of these four women, as well as those of their husbands, parents, and friends.