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Yes, Women Have Midlife Crises, Too

Quit simply, All Fours is the most impactful and personally fulfilling book I've read in the last decade.

Yes, Women Have Midlife Crises, Too

Novelists are finally taking up the once taboo subject of menopause.

“I kind of couldn’t believe the void when I got there,” says Miranda July about the paucity of cultural references to menopause.

By Emily Bobrow, WSJ

May 16, 2024 11:07 am ET

Miranda July was 45 when she realized that she knew little about what was happening—and what was about to happen—to her body. As a child of the 1980s, she certainly felt warned about the contours of puberty and menstruation by Judy Blume and others. But as she reached middle age, where were all the books and movies about what happens next, when those monthly periods slow and then stop?

“I kind of couldn’t believe the void when I got there,” July says in an interview. “It’s this kind of transition, like birth or death, so you would expect books and songs and operas and plays throughout all time on this.” If men went through it, she adds, “we would be referencing back to the perimenopausal texts of the 1700s or the ‘30s.” Instead, she found herself asking her friends about it—often in hushed tones, “kind of whispered”—and no one, not even the most devout feminists, seemed to know more than she did.

Baffled by this cultural black hole, this physiological and psychological quasi-mystery, July decided to write “All Fours,” her latest novel, out this week. It’s about an unnamed 45-year-old woman whose overwhelming attraction to a young man she meets when he squeegees her windshield forces a reckoning with her age, her choices, her marriage, her fluctuating hormones. This woman worries that she has suddenly and unceremoniously aged out of desire—expressing it, receiving it—but it turns out she hasn’t. She learns, however, that these feelings do have a deadline. Her gynecologist tells her to expect menopause soon, with its laundry list of unnerving symptoms, including insomnia, memory lapses and a loss of libido. “We’re about to fall off a cliff,” she warns her best friend. It’s enough to spark a midlife crisis.

July’s candor, her fearlessness, in describing the unwieldy emotional and biological nuances of this time of life is refreshing. “It’s kind of fun being able to throw out the words ‘dry vagina.’ It’s like waving a gun around and everyone goes ‘whoah,’” says the writer and filmmaker, who recently turned 50. Reading her new novel, as a so-called woman of a certain age, I felt seen in a way that is rare. It was invigorating.

Having come of age as a reader in the 20th century, I’m certainly familiar with lamentations of sexual decline in fiction, but these stories were typically by men. Philip Roth’s fictional alter egos were often addled by their sexual narcissism well beyond middle age. John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom devours women and junk food with lusty gusto into his 50s. The abrupt 40-something revelation that life is short is a drama that men have long harnessed, in art and life. The cars become faster and redder, the lovers younger. Eyes may roll, but this manly grasping at pleasure and meaning in the face of mortality is a phenomenon with a name and cultural currency. It’s what launches Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” after all.

For women, the often dark realities of life’s midpoint have long seemed to be something to soldier through, with head down and gritted teeth. Susan Sontag wasn’t yet 40 when she famously observed that aging was rife with double standards. Men who are no longer young might feel regret and apprehension, but they remain sexually eligible as long as they are capable of sex. For women, “aging means a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification,” she wrote, which haunts even young women with a sense that their value is diminishing, that they are racing against time.

A half-century later, this insight still feels apt. Why call attention to one’s imminent cronehood, in art or elsewhere? The stigma against older women is easily internalized. I recently noticed myself brandishing a tampon on the way to an office bathroom stall, apparently eager, unconsciously, to demonstrate I remain in the world of the bleeding.

Women writers who wanted to chronicle this pivot from young to old were often told that it would put off readers. In 2014, novelist Fay Weldon observed that while writers tend to mine their own generation, “only for the mature female writer does this prove something of a problem. Should she be in her 50s and interested in depicting the sexual and social predicaments of women her age, she will find it hard to get a publisher.”

Yet the stories that women are inclined to tell about themselves appear to be changing. Rachel Cusk, Alice Munro, Sigrid Nunez, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler and others have earned wide audiences and critical acclaim for fiction that animates the lives and desires of older women. And in the years that July spent writing “All Fours,” other novelists have published works that make visible the otherwise invisibility of middle-aged women—their conundrums, rages and hot flashes. The luxury of the midlife crisis no longer belongs exclusively to men.

“The symptoms of menopause can be so dramatic, they make you think about your mortality because your body is giving you this unmistakable evidence that you’re aging and changing. It’s not gradual,” says Dana Spiotta, whose acclaimed 2021 novel “Wayward” follows a perimenopausal woman who decides to abandon the suffocating comforts of her suburban life and marriage to live alone in a crumbling but beautiful home in upstate New York.

When Spiotta was navigating this transition herself, she was surprised by just how few pop-cultural references there were to the experience. There was a 2019 episode of the series “Fleabag,” in which Kristin Scott Thomas’s 50-something character describes menopause as “the most wonderful f—ing thing in the world.” A 1972 episode of the sitcom “All in the Family,” called “Edith’s Problem,” sees Jean Stapleton’s Edith cycle wildly through a nutty range of moods. Of course there was also Virginia’s Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which mines the ambivalent interiority of a 52-year-old woman who insists on visibility by throwing a party but also feels “herself suddenly shriveled, aged, breastless.”

“I think we’re not really supposed to talk about the physical symptoms. I think we’re supposed to think they’re kind of gross and that we should be ashamed of it,” says Spiotta. “But then when you’re experiencing them and no one’s talking about them, how do you cope?” With “Wayward,” Spiotta says she wanted to be shamelessly honest about what menopause feels like, the “muggy hormonal veil” that makes it impossible to remember certain words, the insomnia and night sweats that turn every gesture “unbearably sad and futile.”

There is something both funny and exhilarating in watching Spiotta’s 53-year-old heroine lean into her cultural irrelevance, finding in it a freedom to act out, a license to yell at other drivers on the highway, “You have to yield, you selfish motherf—r!”

Other novels, such as Kirsten Miller’s “The Change” (2022) and Joanne Harris’s “Broken Light” (2023), both thrillers, turn menopause into a source of supernatural power—a trend that a Guardian critic dubbed “hot flush noir.” As Germaine Greer wrote in “The Change,” her 1993 nonfiction book about menopause, “There is no point in growing old unless you can be a witch, and accumulate spiritual power in place of the political and economic power that has been denied you as a woman.” It’s a new kind of coming-of-age story.

The potency of midlife is that it suddenly grants the power to see the future and the past at the same time. For most of my life, the world was divided between the young (me) and the old (anyone more than 10 years older). But when I turned 45, I suddenly saw the Matrix—20 years earlier I was 25, 20 years on I would be 65—and all ages felt proximate. It’s an unnerving feeling, but also a powerful one. “It’s a great age for a writer to be,” says Spiotta. “You feel like you have access to everything.”

Miranda July’s heroine in “All Fours” figures out ways to break from the strictures of her life. She carves out time in her week when she is not a dutiful wife or mother; she takes lovers and loses them. She asks other women about how they live, what their marriages are like and what they like best about “life after bleeding.” She tries to map a way forward that allows her to feel both authentic and free. What this looks like is still not completely clear when the book ends, but the last lines are hopeful. The narrator emerges from a theater and notices that the sun is just beginning to set, “golden light everywhere.” She decides to go for a walk: “There was plenty of time.”

Emily Bobrow is an editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Review section.

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